The comments from Emmanuel Macron’s interview this week have caused a lot of consternation. While I often agree with this analysis, I feel his conclusions are off and here attempt a more wide-ranging critique.

First published in November 2019.

Macron has caused a small storm these past few days with his comments on NATO, published following an interview with The Economist. While the short summary drew most of the attention (largely anger at the suggestion that NATO could be in some way compromised – a reality that few politicians dare vocalise), the full transcript covers much more ground.

In this sense alone there is something impressive about the French President. It is difficult to think of anyone else who has such a broad and holistic geopolitical strategy and who so consistently considers the future of Europe in a long-term perspective. However, that rarity also means that Macron is rarely directly challenged on this ground. Other politicians tend to talk more of the short-term and, while this is not irrelevant, it means that Macron’s vision of the future is too often left uncontested as the only one. This should be concerning because it does have serious flaws.

On a positive front, the actual objectives Macron sets out have a lot of value and should form the core of a long-term strategy for Europe. The key points are:

● Establishing a sovereign Europe (tackled through a dual track of more integration and increased democratisation);

● Making Europe into a real balancing power in the world;

● Securing a safe neighbourhood for Europe.

In short, power and peace.

The G7 Summit, August 2019. / Flickr - Number 10

Where Macron’s vision starts to fall apart is on the actual means to turn these three objectives into a reality.

On democratising Europe for example, Macron tends to come back to only two big ideas: the introduction of majority voting for more policy decisions at the EU level and the introduction of transnational lists for European Parliament elections. This is illustrative because it falls a long way short of the kind of root and branch change that will be required to bring about a revival of trust in European democracy. So when it comes to expanding the use of majority voting we need to be clear that this is a method to make Europe more efficient, to make integration work better but it won’t make Europe more democratic. That’s not to say that Europe would be less democratic either but that if people view Europe as undemocratic due to a lack of a well-established political community with real trust, then removing the veto from more policy areas won’t actually solve that issue. Macron may well be right to say that the EU is not working well as 28 members, and so you must reform before you expand, but this idea of reform is only addressing a lack of efficiency.

By contrast, enlargement actually does connect to the concept of building a political community. When Macron characterises enlargement as a limitless process based only on access to the Single Market, he is attacking a straw man. For one thing if the EU is more than a market – which Macron argues it is – then membership of the EU must entail something more meaningful than simply frictionless access to the market. Unless we are to believe that the accession of the states of Eastern Europe had no greater impact on these countries than simple economic growth? And more than this, no one truly conceives of the EU expansion as limitless. The enlargement process is in fact entirely fixed, ending once all European countries (on a small definition of Europe that runs up to the Russian and Turkish borders) are members. Ambiguity over continuous expansion is destabilising but that won’t disappear by simply slapping down a veto on opening negotiations for North Macedonia or even Albania – instead you need to bring EU expansion to a completion and from there undertake, with much great chance of success, the process of spreading European identity and building a political community that is tied to an actual identifiable territory.

All told, any serious attempt to bring about greater democracy needs to consider the question of where power lies in the EU and how that power is held to account. Greater powers for the European Parliament and more executive action given over to the leadership of the European Parliament is therefore the answer. Ideas of transnational lists are nice but are simply symbolic measures to create European feeling, no more effective in actual democratisation than the idea of making Europe Day a public holiday.

Incidentally, as we’ve already mentioned the case of enlargement and the Western Balkans, what was revealing from the full transcript of the interview was that Macron’s opposition is not so based on rational concerns as he makes out. Suggestions that there could be an explosion of Albanian anger in the region if North Macedonia alone was allowed to start negotiations or that Bosnia and Herzegovina is a hotbed of jihadists are assertions based on prejudice fuelled by propaganda spread by the Serb and Russian governments. The former because it is currently led by a nationalist, populist and expansionist regime that attacks its neighbour and has eyes on the Serb part of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the latter because it serves to foment antagonism in the region and to destabilise it. Running along with these ideas does nothing to help Europe.

This uncritical reception of Russian propaganda brings us to Macron’s conception of Europe as a balancing power. Now, in principle, this has significant merit and there is a fair critique to be made of Europe’s excessive dependence on a US which is increasingly unreliable. Without change, Europe could easily be left high and dry. But what makes no sense is Macron’s seeming belief that naive engagement with Russia is some kind of solution for European security. If reliability is the reason we would build independent capacity away from the US, just what about Russia is reliable enough to justify a closer relationship? The truth is that there is no hope for European security as long as we prop up a merciless dictatorship on our border. While Macron (taking the line of many anti-Europeans), argues that Russia has been provoked into a logic of self-defence by the expansion of NATO, this is simply low-grade apologism. The issue has never been an overly aggressive stance towards Russia – indeed at the fall of the Iron Curtain and moving into the 1990s there were many advocates of close ties with a new democratic Russia. The problem is that Russia has chosen to reject Europe’s values. It has no desire for rapprochement on our terms because it sees those terms (correctly) as a fundamental threat to the Putinist system. And so Russia seeks to destroy that system, which could act as an alternative model to the inevitability of Putin’s iron fist. If Russia has annexed European territory with relative impunity it is not because Europe has been too aggressive, it is because Putin considers Europe to be relatively weak – an enemy that should be cut down because now is a good time to do so. If we were to follow Macron’s logic of engagement and accept Russia back into the G7 and Council of Europe, then we would precisely bolster that impression and undermine Europe’s credibility. When Macron speaks of his allies in Europe on this question and names Viktor Orban, how is it possible that he is unable to see the connection between their pro-Russia stance and their desire to spread illiberal authoritarianism? It is ironic that while Macron visibly likes to think of himself as a practitioner of realpolitik, it is a form that is distinctly shy towards any conflict, to the point of talking to any and all in the hope of avoiding it. The true realpolitik is that European security will lie in European strength, not cutting deals with Putin or even Erdogan.

And while on the subject of Erdogan, it is worth pulling up Macron slightly on his NATO comments. Most of the criticism focused on his language, which was admittedly harsh but was not so terrible. Indeed, the main problem with his position was the seeming suggestion that the only problem with NATO was the lack of commitment from the US and that this was justification enough to consider NATO wholly useless. On the first point, if NATO is dysfunctional then it is not simply because of the populist tendencies of the US, all partners are to some degree responsible. Europe has allowed resentment to build up on the other side of the Atlantic by refusing to pull its weight in defence capacity. And Turkey has caused serious problems by running a policy that is directly at odds with that of other NATO members. The alliance is under strain from all sides, not just from the White House. In this regard, Macron’s excessive focus on Washington means that he misses the point on NATO which rests on two pillars. First, though it has problems when used in an offensive capacity, it remains a very effective defensive alliance and it is unwise to talk up its death. Second, talking up the end of NATO will not precipitate the arrival of effective European defence integration. There is a tendency when Macron articulates his vision to portray European defence and NATO as two alternatives and that with the end of one, we must move to the other. For countries like the UK or Poland, this will not work and will simply cause them to double down on the commitment to NATO, attacking Macron for deliberately trying to undermine the alliance – here Macron’s French approach to politics is stronger than his Europeanism. Even if this dichotomy did exist, you would need real political union before a European defence policy could be a suitable replacement for NATO. Reasonably assuming that we should plan for the possibility that political union won’t be forthcoming soon, what would be better than Macron’s approach would be to correctly set out how European defence integration is a route to saving and refounding the NATO alliance, rather than replacing it. Rather than an unbalance system between a powerful US safeguarding a weak Europe, NATO could become a partnership of equals between a strong US and a strong Europe – an alliance that would more obviously make sense for both sides in a post-Soviet world. This would also have the advantage of feeding back into the ambition for a sovereign Europe, without forcing us to denounce the transatlantic relationship. In other words, we can be Atlanticists and believe in effective European power to defend European interest.

And finally all of these ideas tie into the concept of a safe neighbourhood. Our quest for this security cannot be won at the cost of doing cosy deals with dictators, forsaking serious alliances and overlooking our values. Yes, a sovereign Europe whose policy is its own will help us create a neighbourhood that is more stable than the current one but the content of that policy is not irrelevant. The mere act of European sovereignty will not make us more secure if we misuse that power. It’s not enough for us to have effective policy-making and a long-term strategy if the strategy we are pursuing is the wrong one. And this is where Macron’s strategy falls apart, he has the correct end goals but the route to achieving them is not at all viable. It focuses too much on France’s domestic politics and frames, too regularly antagonises the rest of Europe, indulges in a Russian policy that would give a green light to future annexations, relies on inadequate European reforms and misunderstands the motivations of enlargement. And while not all of this is Macron’s fault alone, if he does indeed want to define Europe’s strategy for the next 10-15 years, he will need to come up with better than this.

To this end, a few modest suggestions:

● On NATO, we do need a rebalancing but we can never give the Americans what they want until we have a serious defence capacity of our own. This is the case to make – European defence is an ambition to repair relations with the US, not replace them.

● Conversely, Russia is not a reliable partner, if we want to establish a relationship with Russia that provides security then it is power we need more than dialogue. As well as investing in European defence, this will mean choking off the money flows of the Russian elite, cracking down on the oligarch’s money within Europe and shutting down projects for more gas pipes (or at the very least heavily pushing for more alternatives to Russian gas – EDF could do well to promote nuclear power in Eastern Europe to this end).

Setting out a project of European democratisation that focuses on engagement and trust of citizens, not on the speed of decision-making. If we can make a system with more direct links between power and voters (and power that is actually meaningful), then the legitimacy to push for more majority voting will flow from there.

● Enlargement should be used wisely but let’s be realistic about the situation – countries that get the green light for accession talks now will take at least a decade to join. Rather than worrying about rewarding the genuine reformers (North Macedonia), focus more on putting pressure on the disruptors (Serbia). More generally, look to the long-term and consider the plan not just for the next two or four members but for the end of enlargement entirely and bring this into a preemptive debate on EU reform.

● Overall, there needs to be an honesty about what the EU is now and what we can expect it to do. There are aspects that work well and aspects that do not but most of this is not down to a lack of particular reforms, it is the result of a tension between attempts at European policy and the constraints of national sovereignty. If the strategies for these long-term objectives are to deliver something more than a multiplication of agencies and overlapping multi-speed ‘Europes’, then political union is an unavoidable conclusion.🔷

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[This piece was originally published on A European Tomorrow and re-published in PMP Magazine on 9 November 2019, with the author’s consent. | The author writes in a personal capacity.]

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(Cover: Flickr/Number 10. - Prime Minister Boris Johnson attended a meeting with other European leaders at G7. | 24 Aug 2019. / Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.)