Macron Plays Fox in the EU Hen House

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French President Emmanuel Macron has a grand foreign policy vision for Europe and he has been energetically pushing it forward. In the process, though, he has angered Germany and other European Union allies.

French President Emmanuel Macron

With a microphone in his right hand, his left shoved casually into his pocket, French President Emmanuel Macron was standing on the stage inside a former slaughterhouse in Paris, turning from side to side to address his entire audience. And it was quite an audience. United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres was there, as was future European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas, the president of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and other leading politicians.

Macron spoke for 22 minutes about hegemony and colonialism, about World War I and the fall of the Berlin Wall. In closing, he quoted the recently deceased Hungarian philosopher Ágnes Heller, who said, in Macron’s telling, that more than ever, a certain amount of heroism is needed to provide answers to the present. Looking away in cowardice, remaining stuck in old habits and doing nothing, Macron continued, is not an option for all those who have been handed a political mandate by the electorate.

The message Macron was trying to send by quoting the Hungarian intellectual was relatively clear. I, Emmanuel Macron, he seemed to be saying, did nothing more in my widely criticized interview with the Economist than take a fresh look at our crisis-ridden present and draw my own conclusions. Part of that exercise was casting doubt on NATO’s functionality and on the readiness of the Germans to work toward establishing a strong, sovereign Europe.

Rarely has an interview triggered as much consternation in Europe as Macron’s sit-down with the Economist, which hit the newsstands last Thursday. In the piece, the French president posited that NATO has suffered from “brain death,” questioned whether NATO’s Article Five is still functional and warned of a possibly apocalyptic future for Europe.

‘This Isn’t It’

Allegedly, say sources in Paris, the French Foreign Ministry was only informed of the content of Macron’s interview with the Economist 48 hours before it was published. Berlin, meanwhile, was blindsided. Ahead of Macron’s famous 2017 speech at the Sorbonne, where he laid out far-reaching proposals for the EU’s future, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had received an advance copy. But on this occasion, she was caught unawares.

“You always have to ask how trust develops,” said one German diplomat. “This isn’t it.”

Still, the German government very much shares Macron’s doubts about the effectiveness of the trans-Atlantic alliance. But calling Article Five into question, NATO’s foundational article that requires all alliance members to help out if one member is attacked, is something one would tend to expect more from someone like U.S. President Donald Trump.

Foreign Minister Heiko Maas is concerned that the current NATO discussion could end up dividing Europe. Eastern Europeans, in particular, feel as though the French president is completely ignoring their concerns. “In addition, they all, of course, assume that his comments were coordinated with us, which was not the case,” Maas says. He went on to say that the upcoming 70th anniversary celebrations for NATO, set to take place in early December in London, must now be extremely well-prepared.

In Brussels, too, understanding for Macron’s comments is limited, though that’s not necessarily due to his analysis, which is shared by many in the EU capital. “Emmanuel Macron is right about 95 percent of what he said,” says Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn. “But the existence of NATO as a military alliance is not up for debate.”

Macron has no fear of taboos. The path that ended with his installment in Élysée Palace in May 2017 ran counter to all the rules of French politics. For the first time since 1958, the French elected a president who did not belong to one of the established political parties. Macron found success precisely because he didn’t conform to existing structures, and that remains his key political achievement to this day.

A Man of Convictions

It also explains why he saw fit to act like the fox in Europe’s henhouse without informing his German partners first. He is hoping that the shock value of his comments will set change in motion, and that someone else will clean up after him. Macron, the ambitious elite-school product, is also a gambler. And a man of convictions.

That became apparent as early as 2017, when he challenged the EU to awake out of its stagnant slumber. Since then, he has been waiting in vain for an adequate response from Berlin to his many proposals for the reform of the EU. Last week, Macron transformed that 2017 wakeup call into a shrill alarm, in part out of his firmly held conviction that there is very little time remaining to save the EU.

Inside the German Foreign Ministry — led, as it is, by the Social Democrat Maas — is where one can find the most understanding for Macron’s impatience, given the prevailing feeling there that the chancellor never really provided an adequate response to the French president’s reform proposals. Nevertheless, there is a widespread feeling inside the ministry that Macron’s decision to go solo is rather un-European.

“I think it is legitimate to launch such discussions,” Maas says, “even if I might not agree with his choice of words. But in the German-French relationship, we need to aim for unity when it comes to our strategic approach so that no lasting damage is done.”

Over in the Chancellery, there is frustration at the fact that the German government is consistently depicted as being hesitant while it’s always Macron with the bold ideas. “We have moved significantly on a number of issues, and then we read that the German position on the eurozone is untenable,” says one government adviser. “Thanks a ton.”

Essentially, there is something of a paradox in the current German-French relationship. On the one hand, the two countries have made great strides in a number of areas over the last two-and-a-half years. In summer 2017, they agreed on the development of a joint fighter jet and proposed a joint European defense fund. In the next five years, the European Stability Mechanism, the permanent euro backstop fund, is to be financed to the tune of more than 55 billion euros. And German Finance Minister Olaf Scholz just recently presented his plans for an EU-wide deposit insurance scheme.

Determination, Energy and Fearlessness

On the other hand, though, Berlin and Paris have proven unable to sell joint projects as successes.

Another aspect of the paradox is the fact that Macron is still quite well-liked by the Germans. His determination, energy and fearlessness continue to impress politicians in Berlin. At the same time, though, the German government has never been able to muster the courage to throw its weight behind Macron’s EU vision. And now, after more than two years of waiting, the constant stream of Macron’s solo initiative has led German diplomats — not normally known for public displays of emotion — to lose their composure. They see 2019 as a year in which Macron has stood in the way on many issues and isolated himself with his demands.

A NATO exercise in Latvia in February


A NATO exercise in Latvia in February

The Franco-German discord began in early February, when France suddenly and without warning joined the side of those opposed to the construction of the natural gas pipeline Nord Stream 2. German negotiators were taken by surprise and France’s flip-flop meant that there was suddenly an EU majority in favor of new natural gas rules that would have made it more difficult to complete the project. It would also have handed the European Commission the opportunity to place new hurdles in the way of the controversial project. A compromise was only found at the last minute.

Mistrust between Paris and Berlin then grew at the end of February when it came to the question as to how the EU should position itself in the trade tiff with U.S. President Donald Trump. Whereas Berlin was eager to give European Trade Commissioner Cecilia Malmstrom a negotiating mandate to ward off looming tariffs on automobile imports from Europe, Paris was in no hurry at all. With European Parliament elections on the horizon, the French were keen to avoid giving the impression that a trade conflict with the U.S. could also involve agricultural products and negatively affect French farmers.

French diplomats in Brussels are open about the fact that differences between Berlin and Paris are growing more frequent. Berlin officials, by contrast, insist that the frontlines now run between Paris and the rest of the EU. That has also been easy to see when it comes to Brexit. In recent months, Macron has repeatedly failed in his demand that Britain not be granted a deferral or, if unavoidable, merely a short delay. Most recently, the French had virtually no allies left on the issue.

A ‘Historic Mistake’

Macron was similarly isolated at the EU summit in mid-October, when he blocked the beginning of accession negotiations with North Macedonia by making use of his veto. Outgoing Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker referred to it as a “historic mistake” that could endanger the Balkan country’s stability. Merkel likewise said pointedly that the EU had to “remain reliable.”

Insiders say that it only became clear how Macron would vote on the issue just one day before EU heads of state and government gathered for the summit. When Chancellery staff inquire at the Élysée as to why they aren’t always kept informed, they sometimes receive answers that they have thus far only associated with the Trump administration in Washington: Élysée staff, they hear, only has limited influence over the president.

In August, Macron initiated a new approach to Russia without consulting at all with his allies. Just a few days ahead of the G-7 summit in Biarritz, a group that Russia was expelled from after the annexation of the Crimea, Macron invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to southern France for talks.

Not speaking with Russia would be a major mistake, Macron said immediately before the consultations. Russia, he said, is part of Europe and it cannot and should not be ignored, adding that he believed in the power of geography and European history. Even then, it was growing clear that Macron was thinking about a new security concept for Europe.

For Macron, a strong Europe is one that self-confidently seeks dialogue with the large and mid-sized powers the world over. The more we do to ensure that Russia becomes a power within Europe, Macron said at the time, the better. Shortly after the summit, Macron sent French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and Defense Minister Florence Parly to Moscow. After years of radio silence, the two spoke with their Russian counterparts of a possible French-Russian security cooperation. Both the Chancellery and the Foreign Ministry in Berlin learned of the talks from the newspaper. Even in Paris, observers have begun bemoaning the lack of diplomatic build-up ahead of the president’s numerous foreign policy activities.

There are many who argue that the French president’s extremely active foreign policy is motivated by domestic considerations. Macron needs visible accomplishments ahead of municipal elections approaching in March. Otherwise, his party — which is not deeply rooted in small towns or in the countryside — could be facing a defeat. The protests that have been announced for the end of the year — the Dec. 5 strike by the rail operator SNCF and the Paris Metro in addition to the expected resistance to the government’s pension reform plan — have the potential of placing even more pressure on Macron’s shoulders.

Those Who Fight

Ultimately, though, Macron is likely just doing what he said he was committed to doing from the very beginning: Pursuing an active, self-confident approach to European policy with the aim of positioning the old Continent as a new geopolitical player.

That includes his trip to China two weeks ago, on which he demonstratively brought along German business leaders, German Education Minister Anja Karliczek and a European commissioner. Macron would like to see relations with China to be “Sino-European” from now on. And even if he did a bit of marketing for French products at the China International Import Expo in Shanghai, the Chinese very much saw their guest as an envoy of Europe. On the final day of his visit in Beijing, when the treaty between the EU and China to protect various European food products from counterfeiting was signed, both the Chinese flag and the EU flag were on display in the Great Hall of the People. That, too, was rather unusual for a bilateral visit.

For Macron, it is not a contradiction to put NATO through a kind of stress test in the name of his Europe policy. As the French president likely sees it, Europe cannot be strong and sovereign without a reliable and independent security policy.

The French state secretary for Europe, Amélie de Montchalin, has been involved in several discussions in recent days. It fell to her to soothe alarmed Eastern Europeans and to explain the comments her president had made. “The timing of the interview was not randomly chosen,” she says. “The new European Commission will soon start work and the NATO summit in London is approaching in just over two weeks. We find ourselves at a moment when such questions must be asked.”

Being a good team player has never been among his top priorities. Perhaps he has simply read a bit too much Victor Hugo: “Ceux qui vivent sont ceux qui luttent,” he wrote. “Those who live are those who fight.”




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