Macron & European Strategic Autonomy: Evaluating Mistrust, Communication Gaps & Ambiguities
Written by K.A. Dhananjay, Policy Brief Writer
Over the last few months, European leaders have been scrambling to formulate a unified response to Russia’s military build up on its border with Ukraine. As Europe’s second-largest military and economy, it’s no surprise that France is seen as key to this response.
With this in mind, French President Emmanuel Macron’s most recent address to the European Parliament — where he called for a “new order of security and stability” in Europe and a “gradual rebuilding of confidence with Russia” — has left many scratching their heads. Whether or not Macron’s speech was intended to stake out an independent European policy on Russia separate from NATO, the ensuing controversy and divergent interpretations demonstrate a failure of communication. This is in turn a result of contradictions in Macron’s conception of ‘strategic autonomy’.
There are several reasons for this communication gap. For one thing, Central and Eastern European (CEE) states are wary of France’s penchant for conciliatory rhetoric towards Russia. Whether it’s Nord Stream 2 or calls for deeper EU-Russia dialogue, France — along with Germany — has often shown a keen desire to engage with Russia even when the latter demonstrates a complete lack of interest in changing its aggressive behaviour towards Ukraine. In doing so, France has frequently kept its European allies in the dark. In 2019, for example, Macron unilaterally invited Russian President Vladimir Putin to security talks at his Summer Residence without notifying Germany or other EU members.
Secondly, Paris’ vision of European defence and security policy has traditionally been at odds with that of CEE governments. While the latter — especially Poland and the Baltic states — stress the importance of territorial defence and countering Russia, French-led defence and security projects like the European Intervention Initiative (EI2) have tended to emphasise crisis management in the Middle East and North Africa. Moreover, Central and Eastern Europe do not even feature in the priority document released by France as it presides over the Council of the European Union for the next 6 months. Needless to say, such divergent strategic cultures have fuelled distrust of France’s European defence and security ambitions.
Thirdly, France’s calls for European ‘strategic autonomy’ in the same breath as ‘complementarity’ with NATO indicates a fundamental contradiction in Paris’ policy. By its very nature (at least in its current state), NATO represents dependence on the U.S. as a security provider. There are therefore two scenarios by which Europe could attain ‘strategic autonomy’, one of which is the creation of a separate EU/European defence bloc. In the eyes of CEE states, however, the ongoing crisis with Russia has only reaffirmed the importance of NATO and the fickle nature of French and German opposition to the Kremlin. As long as the U.S. remains in the Alliance and this state of affairs continues, countries like Poland and the Baltic states will not abandon NATO in order to invest in a new European defence order.
The second path towards ‘strategic autonomy’ (and the only realistic one) goes through strategic convergence and closer defence and security integration within NATO. According to such a scenario, European states might consolidate into a single European ‘pillar’ of an Alliance in which Europe takes on a greater share of the responsibility for its defence.
Whether such strategic convergence will happen is far from obvious, however. In order for Paris to get CEE states on board for ‘strategic autonomy’, it must do more. Although France maintains a military presence as part of NATO in Romania in order to reassure eastern Allies, the time has come to up the ante and to rekindle its commitment to the security of the region.
In sum, a European dialogue and security engagement with Russia, if at all considered, should aim to work in concert with existing trans-Atlantic initiatives. As the current crisis makes clear, Europe’s best chance of reaching ‘strategic autonomy’ is through NATO, not separate from it.