Jun 29, 2023

Why Macron Is Now Embracing EU and NATO Enlargement

Paris no longer sees EU enlargement as an obstacle, but as a catalyst for its “European sovereignty” agenda. It’s an uncertain bet, but there are two good arguments for why an EU that moves further east may pave the way for a “Europe puissance.”

An illustration of Emmanuel Macron at the Louvre

Over pastis in a currently sub-tropically hot Paris, a local communications whizz kid recently commented that being a successful politician comes down to being a human Instagram reel. You need to be able to keep telling the same thing, again and again. But each time with the same vigor and conviction. At some point the politician’s narrative “imprints,” as the French say—and then you’ve won.

Well, listening to President Emmanuel Macron speak at the GLOBSEC forum in Bratislava in May felt like watching an Instagram reel. Six years into office, the French president still makes the case for Europe becoming a “great democratic power.” Once more, Macron pleaded that the continent cannot afford to delegate its security to the electorate of the United States. For the nth time, he argued that Europe needs to have its own weapons if it wants to reach the age of geopolitical adulthood one day.

One more time, Macronadamus prognosticated that “Europe’s moment of strategic clarification” is finally nigh. “The future of our continent,” Macron concluded, would be decided “in the months and the two or three years ahead.”

Yet, while Macron’s European sovereignty gospel is unchanged, the policy conclusions he drew from it in Slovakia are entirely new. Paris is having its own little Zeitenwende, as Russia’s war against Ukraine prompts it to give up its opposition to EU enlargement.

When Macron Copies Scholz

At Bratislava, Macron surprised the audience not only by saying things like “the question is not whether we should enlarge … but rather how we should do it.” The same French president who blocked the opening of EU accession negotiations for Albania and North Macedonia in 2019 also said he wants enlargement to happen “as swiftly as possible.”

To be fair, Macron started to pivot on EU enlargement already before Russia’s invasion. In 2021, Olaf Scholz moved into the chancellery in Berlin and made adding the six Western Balkan states (Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia) one of his key EU policy goals. Macron thus made lifting Bulgaria’s veto on starting North Macedonia’s EU accession negotiations a priority of France’s 2022 EU presidency.

But it is only Ukraine that got Macron to take on Scholz’ talking point of enlargement being a geopolitical necessity. If Russia launches territorial wars, the EU must occuper le terrain itself and consolidate its sphere of influence.

Yet, it is not only that. Paris no longer thinks that enlargement will lead to the French nightmare vision of the EU being reduced to a free trade area with a parliament. No, enlargement can be the lever through which Macron’s vision of a fiscally potent, militarily more self-reliant, and geopolitical EU sees the light of day. How does that go? Two points.

When Everything Is Up in the Air

First, in the process of the Western Balkan states as well as Ukraine and Moldova joining, the EU won’t just enlarge. It will also have to fundamentally transform itself.

As Macron says, the EU’s accession process will have to be redesigned. “Staged accession” or “accession as a voyage”—capitals across the EU are currently churning out white papers. But not only that. The EU’s institutional framework and major policy areas from agriculture to fiscal policy will have to be reviewed.

An EU with up to eight new members will need a bigger budget so that it can support the economic catch-up process in the new member states. As existing member states aren’t willing to cough up these funds, the solution may be Brussels getting more of its own revenue sources. To ensure that a larger, more diverse EU can still legislate and act rapidly in a crisis, the EU’s governance will need to be reviewed. How should voting weights in the council be reallocated? Berlin and Paris are also pushing an initiative to get fellow EU member states to move to qualified majority voting in foreign and tax policy.

With enlargement, everything is up in the air. Every country will need to revise some of its red lines. For Macron this is an opportunity to drive forward his agenda. Especially as the countries that want enlargement most—the Central and Eastern European as well as the Nordic member states—are the ones that have in the past been most skeptical about the EU’s deepening.

Finally, Russia’s war against Ukraine provides the EU not only with the impulse, but also the necessary political narrative to sell such a step to domestic audiences. In France, where the media reduced the EU’s 2004 enlargement round to the problem of Polish plumbers stealing French jobs, polls now show that 60 percent of the French want Ukraine to join.

Europeanizing Russia Policy

Second, it may seem counterintuitive, but an enlarged EU may by la force des choses push it to become a more unified geopolitical actor.

The question of how to deal with Moscow has been the source of Europe’s biggest foreign policy disagreements in the past. It is the single biggest obstacle to the EU emerging as a somewhat unified and thus capable geopolitical actor. Yet, Kyiv’s joining the bloc is the silver bullet by which you can Europeanize Russia policy also beyond the war.

If Ukraine was an EU member, the will of Paris, Berlin, and Warsaw to coordinate on Russia would not only come down to solidarity and a currently more common threat perception. France and Germany would think twice about bypassing Kyiv. And because of Ukraine’s size, it would become a powerful player in the Brussels negotiation game in its own right—in other files from tax to agriculture.

Strategic Autonomy Ukraine-Style

Now if Kyiv becomes the central node in the EU’s future Russia policy, shouldn’t that worry Gaullist Macron who continues to argue that, because “we can’t change geography,” Europe will one day have to reengage with Moscow, and wants the EU to set its own China policy?

Yet, just as West Germany in the Cold War was never the one calling for escalation, the chances are that Ukraine and Moldova as hot frontline states would temper revanchist voices in the EU. Also on China, a post-war Ukraine is likely to be closer to the French position and avoid the narrative of a new Cold War. Why? Because Kyiv knows that Beijing is increasingly Russia’s paymaster.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was never the one saying that Macron and Scholz shouldn’t speak to Putin to try to avoid a war in spring 2022. Zelensky also stays mute on Taiwan, and still hopes Beijing may one day nudge Moscow to pull back from the war.

Finally, a well-armed and battle-proven Ukraine would be an asset, not a liability for creating that strong European pillar within NATO. Kyiv will continue to buy American but also European arms, including German tanks and French missiles, because these are the arms it is operating now. One day it would probably support the French army in its own missions, like the Czech Republic and Estonia have done in “Operation Barkhane” in the Sahel, because solidarity is two-way street.

Calculated Optimisim

France always feared that enlargement would paralyze the EU and bury its vision of a Europe puissance. But it doesn’t have to be this way. The debate pitting “enlargement” versus “deepening” is history. Both will have to accompany each other. And as the EU moves east, the EU with Ukraine won’t just get a “bigger Poland” governed by the nationalist PiS party that buys South Korean tanks and fights with Brussels at every turn, but a country that could be much more aligned with French thinking on Europe.

Macron—the perennial wishful thinker or calculated optimist, depending on your view—is thus going on the offensive. He wants EU enlargement, the EU to offer security guaranties to Ukraine in its own right, but also a pathway for Kyiv to join NATO, as the transatlantic alliance remains the primary security guarantor.

In a 2018 interview, Macron had the chutzpah to say this: “Paradoxically, it renders me optimistic that history is becoming tragic once again. Europe will no longer be protected as it has been since World War II. This old continent of petits-bourgeoisie sheltering in their material comfort is embarking on a new adventure where tragedy beckons.”

Has Macron’s moment arrived?

Joseph de Weck is INTERNATIONALE POLITIK QUARTERLY’s Paris columnist and author of the book Emmanuel Macron. The revolutionary president (2021).

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