President Macron has been promoting the concept of European sovereignty and strategic autonomy for quite some time. His vision of a strategically autonomous Europe is based on the premise of profound geopolitical shifts and a new reality of big power rivalries. Still, Paris will have to convince skeptical EU Member States about the soundness of this concept.
8 January 2021, By Martin Quencez
The Biden election gave a new momentum to the European debate on strategic autonomy. The concept of strategic autonomy (as well as European sovereignty), which features in EU official documents, remains unclear to many, and even controversial in some European capitals. The recent open disagreement between French president Emmanuel Macron and German defense minister Annegret Kramp Karrenbauer illustrates the existing differences among EU member-states.
France has historically taken the lead in promoting a sovereign and strategically autonomous Europe. Rooted in the French strategic culture, this ambition has been reaffirmed over the past four years in light of the deterioration of the European security environment and the political evolutions in the United States and China. During his 2017 presidential campaign, Emmanuel Macron argued that Europe was “at the crossroad between strategic irrelevance and a reaffirmation of its power on the international stage”. This sense of urgency has guided the action of the French president ever since.
President Macron has been particularly outspoken about his vision of Europe, giving regular speeches and interviews on the subject and putting the European project at the center of his foreign policy discourse. His approach, however, is largely in line with the one of his predecessors. It stems from the idea that France, like all other European states, has an increasingly limited leverage in a world of great power competition, and that its national interests are best defended and promoted at the European level. In that context, European strategic autonomy – understood as having the ability to act by yourself when necessary, upon decision you have made based on your own rules – becomes a necessity rather than a choice.
Whether deemed too vague or in direct contradiction with French foreign policy choices, the idea of “Europe as a power” has triggered heated debate in Europe and even clear opposition from key partners. To convince the skeptics, France will have to better articulate its vision of Europe with a strong transatlantic cooperation, clarify its institutional approach, and translate it into a clear policy timeline.
Why Europe Needs a Vision
In theory, all European leaders heartedly agree that Europe should be ready to do more for its own security and to defend its strategic and economic interests. The conceptual debate on European sovereignty and strategic autonomy could therefore appear pointless. One could argue that the never-ending battle of narratives has in fact become toxic and counterproductive. For the French president, however, it is the lack of a clear political vision that has become an existential threat for the European project. Convinced that the populations’ support is vanishing, Emmanuel Macron argues that Europe needs to reinvent itself and that building an inspiring narrative is a priority. This is all the more urgent as the fading memory of the war and the succession of economic crises have made the EU a less credible guardian of peace and prosperity for the new generations.
In fact, French decision-makers have complained less about the reluctance of European partners to embrace the French vision than about the lack of interest for creating a new political vision altogether. French minister of economy Bruno Le Maire argued that if the purpose of Europe was “only to be a trading port and a single market, I am not interested”. From the French point of view, such comments should be heard as a call for other European leaders to present their own perspective on the role of Europe in the 21st century. French officials often regret the absence of clearly defined alternatives, as no other country seems to share the same eagerness in redesigning a political raison-d’être for Europe.
A Battle of Realism
In their recent spat over the future of Europe and the transatlantic relationship, both President Macron and Minister Kramp-Karrenbauer called for Europeans to be realistic. While the latter declared that “illusions of European strategic autonomy must come to an end”, the former argued that the French vision was, on the contrary, rooted in a lucid understanding of the strategic environment.
For France, great power competition is the name of the game, and Europeans have no choice but to play it. Europe simply cannot afford to be a mere observer – or worse, an object – of the U.S.-China global competition, nor can it remain strategically impotent when faced with the hostile actions of other actors such as Russia and Iran. As the European project was in part designed to overcome power politics, this will require a difficult yet necessary cultural shift. Being realistic, in that sense, is to accept that Europe is “forced to be a power”.
The same realism dictates to acknowledge the evolution of U.S. domestic and foreign policy and its implications for Europe. European partners have not shared the same experience of the transatlantic relationship over the past two decades, which has led to many disagreements. For France, the U.S. has become a more unpredictable ally due to the extreme polarization of its politics. Bipartisanship appears to be a thing of the past, and the election of Joe Biden will not change this deep trend. The U.S. focus on the Indo-Pacific also means that transatlantic and European priorities may increasingly diverge. From a French perspective, one cannot overstate the historical importance of Barack Obama’s decision not to strike the Syrian regime in 2013. The “red-line” episode embodied the fact that the Syrian conflict, and its strategic implications, were not assessed as vital for U.S. interests. It left France – and Europeans – helpless while other powers gained in influence in the region. Similar situations are doomed to repeat if the transformations in U.S. policy are not accepted and the transatlantic relationship fails to adapt.
As a result of these evolutions, relying only on the U.S. to defend European security and interests is both unrealistic and strategically unsound in the long run. The role of Europe in the world cannot be limited to be a partner. It does not mean, however, that the French vision of strategic autonomy is one of independence from the U.S. On the contrary, transatlantic cooperation should be sought and strengthened whenever possible. In fact, France and the U.S. have experienced an outstanding level of defense and security cooperation over the past decade, and Paris has made clear that U.S. support was still essential to pursue its policy goals.
Assuming Greater Strategic Responsibilities
The French discourse emphasizes the need for Europe to assume more responsibilities on the world stage. This ambition reflects a deep French concern: how to avoid becoming irrelevant in the current strategic environment? The question bears clear policy implications. To fully play their international role, European partners need the ability to define their interests and assess their security environment on their own, the political capacity to decide of the course of actions they wish to follow, and the capabilities to implement their policy decisions. French officials often refer to these three pillars of strategic autonomy to explain their positions on particular foreign policy issue.
Emmanuel Macron’s approach to Russia illustrates this ambition. The French president has openly shared his concerns to see European powers sidelined while the U.S. and Russia discussed security matters with direct implications for European security. France notably criticized the Trump administration’s lack of coordination on the abandonment of the INF treaty, as well as the future of the New Start treaty. This significantly affected Europe’s ability to evaluate and influence its own strategic environment. Macron’s initiative to rethink the relationship with Moscow was meant to avoid a situation where great powers could decide the future of the European continent without taking into account European perspectives. It also aimed at keeping an open channel of communication with the Russians who, in Macron’s view, would have no choice but to seek European cooperation as China increasingly takes the lead in Asia.
Similarly, France’s military activism in the Middle East, North Africa and Sahel region, are thought to advance French as well as European security interests. The 2013 French intervention in Mali was a point in case: the possible collapse of the Malian state to an Islamist terrorist group would have eventually been a serious threat for all European states. Paris regularly reminds allies of the need to have a 360-degree understanding of European security. The operation also highlighted the way France wants to articulate European empowerment with transatlantic cooperation: both the Obama and Trump administrations perceived the French leadership in the region to be in the U.S. interests, while U.S. logistical and ISR support has been instrumental on the ground.
Emmanuel Macron’s comments on NATO constitute another example of this need for Europeans to take more responsibilities. By calling NATO “brain dead”, the French president reacted to the recent Turkey’s military operations in North-Eastern Syria, with the carte blanche of the Trump administration. For Macron, NATO is essential to European security, and the military organization has undergone significant changes to adapt to threats, but the alliance has failed to protect French – and European – interests from the actions of another ally. The situation within the alliance, marked by conflicting priorities and a lack of political leadership from the U.S., further convinces French policymakers of the need for European strategic autonomy.
A Contested Vision in the European Context
In many ways, the so-called French vision has been embraced by EU institutions for several years. Under Jean-Claude Juncker, the strategic ambitions of the EU in the world greatly increased. The Von der Leyen commission was presented as “geopolitical”, while the EU High Representative Josep Borrell repeatedly urged Europeans to “learn to use the language of power”. Yet, the ideas promoted by Paris remain divisive in Europe.
Part of the controversy can be traced back to issues of communication. The translation of concepts in national languages, the different diplomatic traditions, as well as the multiplication of long foreign policy speeches by French leaders have added to the confusion. These misunderstandings, however, should not overshadow the deeper political disagreements. France cannot overlook the substantial criticisms expressed by some partners.
First, the French vision fails to define what “Europe” is, and therefore lacks in institutional clarity. France remains fundamentally pragmatic in its approach of EU institutions, prioritizing efficiency. This “whatever works” philosophy has become an issue for smaller European states strongly attached to the institutional equality that the EU provides, but also for Germany. France has been a strong advocate of EU solidarity, in the case of the Greek-Turkish tensions in the Eastern Mediterranean for instance, while also building coalitions outside the EU framework when necessary. Besides, the concept of European sovereignty seems to imply a federalist project, but the French government remains cautious not to address it as such. This vagueness, along with the uncertainty of the future of the security relationship with the UK, creates confusion. For some European partners, the institutional questions raised by the idea of “Europe as a power” remained therefore unanswered.
The second difficulty relates to the policy timeline. Emmanuel Macron’s European policy stems from a strong sense of urgency. The French president often mentions the limited time left for Europeans to avoid being the object of a bipolar competition. At the domestic level, he also shares his concerns that the French public support for the European project could quickly fade away if important changes are not implemented. On the other hand, European strategic autonomy is described as the project of a generation, conditioned by the slow emergence of a common European strategic culture and the development of complex strategic capabilities. As a result, France has to constantly reconcile the need for quick European “wins” with long-term European interests. This can become problematic at the transatlantic level, when strengthening European strategic autonomy requires to sacrifice short-term compromises with the U.S.
Finally, France also faces a leadership paradox. Indeed, Paris has often assumed a position of European leader in the foreign and defense policy fields over the past decade. While undoubtedly helping Europe’s strategic emergence, France’s activism revealed the mistrust of some partners towards European initiatives which are seen as the continuation of France national ambitions. France has been criticized for its unilateralism in Libya, as well as for its policy of rapprochement with Russia, which have weakened its credibility as a champion of European interests. The French vision, to be materialized, requires a critical mass of European countries to unite and embrace its project. Paris therefore still has some work to calibrate both its rhetoric and its actions to achieve its goal.