European sovereignty has lost its biggest champion
Mujtaba Rahman is the head of Eurasia Group’s Europe practice and the author of POLITICO’s Beyond the Bubble column. He tweets at @Mij_Europe.
Emmanuel Macron is credited with injecting the concept of “European sovereignty” into the popular discourse in a speech at the Sorbonne in Paris soon after he was elected in 2017.
Since the French president’s intervention, it has come to be used casually by foreign policy experts to explain and justify almost everything the European Union does in the world — from its ambition to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050 to its recent investment deal with China.
Yet even as the debate over “sovereignty” continues to rage, the idea’s greatest champion has been quietly redefining what he actually meant — and quietly lowering the basis upon which to judge its success.
Since Sorbonne, Macron’s definition of European sovereignty has shifted considerably, under the growing influence of several informal advisers — especially the mildly Euroskeptic former foreign minister, Hubert Védrine.
These days when Macron brings up the idea, he’s more likely to use the word “autonomy” than “sovereignty,” as his interview in Le Grand Continent in November made clear.
That’s not just semantics. It suggests that Macron, under Védrine’s influence, has become more pragmatic. He now accepts that national sovereignty and national politics should and will dominate in the EU for the foreseeable future.
Practically, Macron’s idea of “European autonomy” has been reduced to a push for greater European military spending and a clear European defense identity within NATO — as opposed to a desire to create a complement or even rival to the transatlantic alliance, as some took his comments about NATO’s “brain death” in the Economist in 2019 to mean.
While Macron had hoped that a common EU response to the coronavirus would provide proof of his ideas in action, the initial problems with the EU-wide vaccination rollout, now largely corrected, have infuriated him and his government.
The French president has also moved somewhat away from his original “Sorbonne doctrine” by giving less prominence in recent comments to his plans to strengthen and “complete” the eurozone. The progress made in this area, especially the €750 billion recovery fund, seems to have satisfied him for the time being.
And while many will argue that the EU’s recent investment deal with China is an example of strategic autonomy in action, the truth is more uncomfortable: The agreement reflects a combination of cynical EU mercantilism combined with a desire to leverage U.S. hard power where the EU’s capabilities are lacking.
Even Macron’s more modest ambitions on defence remain a hard hill to climb. The evolution in Macron’s thinking is in some part borne out of his realization that in Germany, the conservative Christian Democrats don’t look favorably upon his grand visions and are clear that NATO remains the backbone of the West’s security infrastructure.
Indeed, the fact that strategic autonomy is viewed with deep suspicion in Berlin — essentially as a way for France to try and dominate in the EU now that the U.K. has left — is likely one of the reasons why the Elysée is subtly diluting its ambitions.
As one senior French government official told me: “Macron may be right to put defense and increased military spending at the heart of his argument for a stronger and more political Europe, but it’s inevitably seen in other capitals —especially Berlin — as a crafty way of putting France at the center of the top table.”
While it’s probable that the Greens and possibly the Liberals will enter the next German government and both would look favorably upon many of Macron’s ideas, this is tempered by the growing recognition in Paris that the chances of Armin Laschet replacing Chancellor Angela Merkel may also be dwindling. Markus Söder, whose own prospects remain challenging, is nonetheless one of the key beneficiaries of Laschet’s recent struggles and is more of an Atlanticist. He would therefore be more reluctant to embrace Macron’s ideas.
Another constraint for Macron is domestic. His popularity among the pundits aside, he has yet to implant his ideas in France, let alone in the whole of the EU. Beyond Macron’s circle, neither of his formulations — European sovereignty or autonomy — is currently accepted or strongly promoted by other French politicians.
The Left is either euro-hostile or tied to the idea that the EU should be less market-oriented and more “social” and more green. The French center-right is nominally European but easily distracted or tempted by more nationalist, inward looking arguments. The far right is congenitally Europhobic but has moved for the time being away from an outright “Frexit” viewpoint. As Macron grapples with a third wave and third “lockdown light,” he’s unlikely to find time to spread his ideas in the French body politic.
Then there’s the fact that European “autonomy” has long been part of the way that Europhile French politicians have viewed the future of Europe — as a “Europe puissance” with a central role for France within it.
In 1962, Charles de Gaulle said: “What is Europe about? It must serve to avoid being dominated by either the Americans or the Russians …. If France manages to be the first of the six … she will be able to wield this Archimedes lever. She will be able to lead the others. Europe is the way for France to become again what it ceased to be at Waterloo: first in the world.”
In 2020, Macron said, “I believe the … way forward is a strong and political Europe. Why? Because I do not believe that Europe waters down France’s voice: France … builds much more useful and stronger action when it does so through Europe.”
The similarity is obvious even if the emphasis is different — more genuinely European in Macron’s case. Yet the danger for the current French president is that other Europeans, starting in Germany, will recognize De Gaulle’s thought patterns in Macron’s argument.
There are also problems in the EU beyond Berlin and Paris that work against Macron’s ambition. The EU27 can’t really push forward in all these areas within its existing institutional and decision-making structure, which keeps foreign policy, and many other EU policy areas, as a national competence.
Lastly, Macron has long believed that pan-European action will eventually forge a pan-European identity. In recent speeches and interviews, he has described “European autonomy” as not just a matter of new policies but also the creation of a “common political culture.”
The first step is to persuade the Europeans to “think European” and internalize a belief in common European values and interests. The rest, he argues, will follow. He sees a stronger European defense policy — shared armed forces helping to promote common identity — as one of the shortcuts to generating this European self-awareness.
This, then, is perhaps the central contradiction of strategic autonomy. How can the EU take common decisions, and put the institutions in place to do so, allowing it to act as an “autonomous” bloc, before there is a fully established and accepted European conscience and political power? That has been the chicken-and-egg at the heart of the EU from the beginning.
Macron has raised the question. He may finally be coming around to realizing that he so far hasn’t found the answer.
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