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Is Macron’s sovereign Europe beginning to take shape?

Europe has entered a new era of geopolitics. On the continent’s eastern frontiers, Russia is seeking to reassert what it considers to be its rightful sphere of influence in its war of aggression against Ukraine. Meanwhile, the United States (US) – the traditional guarantor of European security since the end of the Second World War – is turning increasingly inward with the growing likelihood of a Donald Trump victory in this year’s presidential election.

The coinciding of these shifts in the international system present an opportunity for Emmanuel Macron, the French President. Tensions in the Indo-Pacific between the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the US to the west and Russian neo-imperialism to the east aligns with the French President’s ambition to create a sovereign European Union (EU) security architecture. The combination of shifting US foreign policy priorities and geostrategic competition with Russia means that the EU will have no choice but to step up to maintain peace and stability in Europe. 

Unsurprisingly, Olaf Scholz, the German Chancellor, did not hesitate to rebuke Macron’s refusal to rule out sending Western troops to Ukraine. Germany has made sure to tread carefully in its response to Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine out of fear of escalation. But perhaps the real motivation behind Macron’s intervention was to consolidate France’s position as the leading EU power as the geopolitical realities of interstate conflict return to the European continent. 

When Angela Merkel stepped down as the Chancellor of Germany in 2021, she was credited in some quarters with steering Europe through the eurozone crisis, the migration crisis, and Brexit. European stability soon became synonymous with German pragmatism. Perhaps Macron believes that he can emulate Merkel’s influence today when it comes to the issue of how to manage a resurgent Russia.

Macron’s push is part of a long-standing French tradition of advocating for European strategic sovereignty. Indeed, in February 2020, counter to prevailing views in Washington, France’s President saw Russia as an essential part of European integration. ‘There can be no defence and security project of European citizens without political vision seeking to advance gradual rebuilding of confidence with Russia’, Macron told the Ecole de Guerre, the prestigious French military academy in Paris.

Here, Macron’s desired strategy for engagement with the Kremlin followed a similar line of thinking to Charles de Gaulle, hero of the Free French forces in the Second World War and President of France from 1959-1969. Despite his lack of sympathy with communism, de Gaulle viewed the Soviet Union as a useful counterbalance to US power in Europe. The founding father of the French Fifth Republic deepened relations with the Soviets with the aim to create a new European order ‘from the Atlantic to the Urals.’

But the decision to advance a Gaullist foreign policy backfired on Macron in February 2022. Russia’s blatant neo-imperialism meant that his previous strategic dialogue with Russian President Vladimir Putin was met with scepticism, if not outright condemnation, from eastern EU member states who continued to see NATO as the primary source of their security – a belief that Russian actions validated. 

In response, Macron has renewed his diplomatic engagement with Central and Eastern Europe in order to enhance the EU’s defence and security resilience. The French President stood by his refusal to rule out sending Western forces to the Ukrainian battlefield in a meeting with his Czech counterpart, Petr Pavel, in Prague. ‘We must be rational about the reality of the situation playing out in Europe’, Macron said. While others are sceptical, Macron is right to take a clear-eyed approach as Russia’s threat beyond Ukraine becomes increasingly clear. 

For example, the Kremlin is intensifying its disinformation campaign against Moldova with the aim to depose the legitimate, democratically-elected pro-Western administration in Chisinau. Evghenia Gutul, the governor of Moldova’s autonomous region Gagauzia who is linked with the fugitive pro-Russian oligarch Ilan Shor, has suggested Romanian officials control the Moldovan government. In the Baltic Sea, Russia is preparing for a long-term confrontation with the West following Sweden’s historic decision to join NATO. According to Lithuanian intelligence, Moscow is ‘expanding its military capability westward’ with ‘planned structural and leadership changes.’ 

Macron’s stated commitment to a Ukrainian victory by all means necessary puts France in a position to take the initiative in this new geopolitical landscape. It allows France’s President to forge an alliance with his eastern EU counterparts, who have long been calling on the West to intensify its financial and military support to Ukraine. Margus Tsahkna, Estonia’s Foreign Minister, welcomed Macron’s remarks on sending Western forces to Ukraine, stating that it ‘makes Putin concerned about what Europe can actually do. This out of the box thinking is useful.’

Macron has not found it easy to realise his ambition to create a sovereign Europe. But Russia’s neo-imperialist threat does call for strengthened coordinated action among the 27 EU member states as the US reevaluates its interests. Macron’s efforts to see the new security picture from a Central European perspective may be the foundation he needs to transform the EU into a pillar of stability in the emerging multipolar order.

Hugo Blewett-Mundy is a Non-Resident Associate Research Fellow from the EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy in Prague.

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