Ahead of a major European Union summit on February 23, Chancellor Angela Merkel made an appeal to fellow German lawmakers to help forge a more united and powerful Europe. “The world is not waiting for us,” she warned, urging support for “European responses to pressing big challenges of our time.”
Going to bat for Europe was in part an overture to French President Emmanuel Macron. Back in late September, Macron delivered a sweeping speech on his vision for the future of the European Union, championing greater European integration and calling on Germany directly to jointly lead a major push to reform the bloc. Germany, it seems, approves.
Ever since his victory over right-wing populist leader Marine Le Pen in France’s election last year, Macron has been celebrated in Brussels and European capitals as a true champion of Europe—and indeed, the French leader is undoubtedly a pro-European president. He is more than ready to invest his political capital in order to foster a more efficient cooperation among European partners.
Yet the general sense of relief that followed his election win and the strong European symbolism he employs have overshadowed the Elysée’s actual policies. Macron is not an ideological European but a pragmatist. To him, refounding the European project is first and foremost a necessity to better protect European citizens against the dangers of globalization and diminish populism. The French president believes indeed in the European project, but is also very critical of its recent evolutions, its extreme bureaucratization and lack of inspirational initiatives. Perhaps more importantly, he sees Europe in the pure tradition of French European policy—as a lever to promote French interests and values at the global level. “I strongly believe that Europe is good for France; and that France cannot succeed without a stronger Europe,” said Macron in his 2018 New Year’s statement.
In fact, Macron’s political program and his vision for the European project are often misunderstood. His definition of “pro-European” is likely to be quite different from the one held in other European capitals. The relative vagueness of the concept gives ground for a lot of wishful thinking from external observers, but deeper analysis of France’s political culture and Macron’s statements should provide a clearer understanding of his real vision of Europe.
Macron prefers to promote the European project rather than the EU. He argues for an overhaul of Europe because he views the failure of the EU to protect its citizens against the negative effects of globalization as a major contributor to populism. And he defends Europe but wants to change it quickly in order to see concrete results during his presidency.
Macron’s lack of ideological constraints—“I have no red lines,” he noted during his Sorbonne speech—is best illustrated by his open support for a multispeed Europe. He believes the European project has in fact always worked with a small avant-garde of determined countries that lead the way to further cooperation and integration. Accepting the reality of the European construction means accepting the need for differentiation: “Europe is already multispeed, let’s not be afraid of saying it and wanting it!”
This pragmatism also defines Macron’s promotion of various formats of cooperation. Although the EU is at the heart of the European project, it is not the only framework for an efficient cooperation among Europeans. Because Macron is focused on delivering results, he is not as interested in strengthening institutions as he is in the rapid implementation of policies, even if that involves working outside the EU. The mission defines the coalition, and the EU is only one option among others.
He has also issued an appeal for a less naïve Europe—one that is comfortable defending its interests and protecting its citizens against what he calls the defects of globalization. The French president wants to see more reciprocity in Europe’s engagement with the world, in particular in trade policy. In January 2018, Macron criticized the bloc’s approach of opening European markets to countries that “kept theirs half-closed.” This emphasis on reciprocity and fairness also echoes Macron’s campaign slogan: “Europe that protects.” The same emphasis on protection shapes his approach to intra-European affairs: Macron’s efforts to reform the posted workers’ directive directly stem from this commitment. The directive had become a symbol of the French debate about the EU and the unfair competition that Europe imposed on French companies; it was crucial for the new president not to appear weak on this matter.
A French Lens on Europe
Macron’s positions do not constitute a fundamental change in France’s traditional European policy, as underlined by the president in his 2018 New Year’s address to the French diplomatic corps. The methods and messaging, not the objectives, are new. Macron is more assertive and self-assured than his predecessors, but his words do not stray from the guiding principles of France’s approach to Europe.
Macron has consistently reaffirmed the centrality of the French-German partnership, for example. The nominations of Philippe Etienne—former French ambassador to Germany—as his senior diplomatic advisor and several German-speaking ministers illustrate the early commitment of the president to this principle.
With Macron’s victory came the hope for a new era of coordination between Paris and Berlin, and the need to present joint proposals to strengthen the European project. But Macron intends to go even further and distinguish himself from previous presidents: “The normal French strategy is to start out on the base of Franco-German coordination. When that becomes difficult, you turn to Franco-Italian or Franco-Spanish cooperation and play on the jealousy implicit in those triangles. I have never done that because it leads to nowhere,” he said in the New Year’s address.
As with previous French leaders, Macron’s global ambitions underpin France’s EU policy. Promoting European cooperation is intended to put Europe on par with global powers like the US and China. Similarly, he has indicated that the reform of the eurozone is meant to build an economic power that can compete with the two biggest economies of the world. And Macron’s declarations at the 2018 Davos World Economic Forum repeated that goal in other domains like climate change, the digital revolution, and human rights.
Meanwhile, during his 2018 visit to China, Macron expressed regret that bilateral relations with Beijing often overshadowed European ones and called for a better coordination of EU policies on the protection of strategic sectors against foreign investments and the implications of the One Belt One Road policy.
The Defense Test
Macron came to power in a period of momentum for European defense cooperation. The launch of Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), the common European defense pact, was a sign that European cooperation in defense has witnessed real progress. This, too, illustrates the traditionalism of Macron’s policy on Europe.
On defense spending, Macron has committed to reaching the NATO goal of 2 percent of GDP by 2025; beyond the budget, French discourse is also focused on the actual deployment of European military capabilities and the political willingness to use force. Indeed, diverging strategic and military cultures among European partners (particularly Germany and France) continue to hinder defense cooperation. Recently launched initiatives—such as the European Defense Fund (EDF), the Coordinated Annual Review on Defense (CARD), and PESCO—are seen by Paris as tools that may help member states become more credible security actors. However, the intense negotiations surrounding PESCO have brought France’s traditional position back to the forefront: European defense cooperation should be about defense, not about European integration. The haggling over PESCO also revealed Macron’s ambition to promote an ambitious avant-garde rather than a more inclusive framework. The final PESCO agreement reflects more of the German position than the French, to Paris’ disappointment.
Macron’s strong support of European strategic autonomy—once again, a traditional French objective—has also framed France’s position on defense. Europe’s quest for strategic autonomy is what he calls “a geopolitical necessity” that was confirmed by Washington’s inability to act decisively in Syria. French diplomats and members of the Hollande government heavily criticized Barack Obama’s decision in August 2013 not to strike the Syrian regime over its use of chemical weapons against civilians. For Macron, Obama’s failed red line exemplifies why Europe should develop the tools to think and act autonomously when necessary.
Similarly, Macron’s idea of a European Intervention Initiative, his proposal to develop formats of cooperation outside the EU, partly stems from the lessons of the 2013 intervention in Mali. The lack of coordination with European partners before the operation and the differences in strategic cultures prevented France from receiving the support it initially hoped from its allies. In practice, the EII will aim to be a flexible and ambitious framework to share contingency planning and intelligence for future crises.
Finally, Macron’s emphasis on reciprocity could lead to heated debates with European and transatlantic partners. Indeed, one of the most pressing issues of European defense cooperation is the involvement of non-EU countries in EDF or PESCO projects. For Paris, reciprocity means that a company from a non-EU country should only be able to benefit from EDF funding if that non-EU country allows European companies to receive public money as well. France’s strict position may trigger tensions—and carry important consequences for future defense cooperation between the EU and UK and France and the US. Indeed, allowing US industries to receive European money when the Trump administration has tightened the “Buy American Act” rules would represent precisely the naiveté that Macron criticizes.
Macron is not the president European federalists may have dreamed of the night of his election. In fact, the French president has often referred to the “Gaullist” tradition of French foreign policy to define his vision of international affairs. Although the relevance of this concept – and even its historical reality – is still largely debated among French experts, its use serves a purpose at the domestic level: being a self-proclaimed heir to this tradition is a way for Macron to tell the French people that he intends to build his European and foreign policy within a certain idea of a national consensus. If he succeeds to durably strengthen France’s leadership within the EU, his vision could deeply change the course of the European project: A more flexible Europe could mean more efficient cooperation, but also a much less cohesive and united continent overall. For Macron, this is the cost Europeans should be ready to pay in order to overcome the threat of anti-European populism.