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Macron’s Proposals On Russia Could Be Good For The West

ARTICLES - 25 January 2022

President Macron’s address to the European Parliament was supposed to be a highlight of France’s six-month EU council presidency. Instead, his remarks have caused tensions in the transatlantic relationship.

Last Wednesday, Macron argued that Europeans should "work on proposals to build a new security and stability order in Europe", first among themselves and then within NATO. Europe could then use these discussions as a basis for frank negotiations with Russia. Critics accused Macron of dividing and weakening the West at a critical moment in the negotiations between the US and Russia on Ukraine. 

Although Macron could have been more specific on what these discussions entail, NATO allies should think twice about rejecting his proposal for more EU security discussions in the future. 

Not all the criticism levelled against Macron is justified

Macron has not always been good at consulting his allies before making big foreign policy statements. 

NATO allies have still not forgiven him for calling NATO "braindead" in an interview with The Economist in 2019. Likewise, many EU countries were angry when he proposed a new strategic dialogue to Moscow before discussing it inside the EU Council. It is no surprise that countries are suspicious of Macron’s proposals and interpreting them in light of what he did in the past. 

But as Joseph de Weck notes, Macron is not proposing to bypass NATO or the OSCE and set up alternative talks with Russia. Instead, he is arguing that the EU should try to use the next six months to advance security discussions first within the EU and then within NATO. Only then should Europe consider how to engage Russia - and on what basis. The programme of the French EU Council presidency is also explicit in that there should be complementarity between the EU and NATO - and the French Ministry for Europe and foreign affairs has since doubled down on France’s commitment to NATO. His proposal for new discussions may seem vague, but it is undeniably transatlantic.

According to de Weck, by focusing solely on Macron’s comment for a "new security order", rather than the whole speech, critics fail to notice the subtle shift that has taken place in France’s policy toward Russia over the last two years. Yes, France still believes in talking to Russia, but it also believes this engagement should be European - rather than France-led. France supports talks in the EU, NATO but also the G7 and the OSCE, which are being chaired by Germany and Poland respectively. 

Macron believes Europe must do more in the field of security

Macron’s comments are also consistent with what he has been saying for the past five years.

He believes the EU needs to get real about European defense - and fast. Europe can no longer rely exclusively on the US’s security umbrella to guarantee peace on the continent. Growing US-China tensions means that the US will need to be more focused and present in Asia. For years, the US has been asking Europeans to increase their defense spending. This has very real implications for how the US and Europeans respond if Russia invades Ukraine. 

He also believes that Europe should decide what happens in Europe. This has often been seen as an attempt to distance France and Europe from the US - a view that Paris rejects. For France, it’s more about making sure that European countries get to shape if and how they intervene in conflicts in Europe and its immediate neighbourhood. It’s also about making sure that Europeans have an equal say in NATO and, in this case, have a greater role in shaping that transatlantic approach toward Russia.

Macron knows the EU will only be taken seriously on security and defense if it can speak with one voice and has the means to exercise power. 

While France has welcomed the US’ outreach to European partners throughout its talks with Russia, it regrets that European divisions and disunity prevent it from being around the negotiating table. Macron knows the EU will only be taken seriously on security and defense if it can speak with one voice and has the means to exercise power. France has been pushing for more discussions at the EU level: the Strategic Compass, an EU white paper on EU defense, is supposed to be adopted later this year. 

He also knows EU initiatives cannot come at the expense of NATO. On the day of his address to the EU Parliament, Macron announced that France intended to send more troops to take part in a NATO Enhanced Forward Presence mission in Romania. France will also continue to invest in talks in the Normandy format, which brings together Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France.

France should use its EU Council presidency to forge a common EU response

According to Caroline de Gruyter, when it comes to Russia, Europe is divided on pretty much everything: from how to deter Russian aggression to how to react if Russia does indeed invade Ukraine. But it also cannot afford to remain quiet. 

Setting aside the need for deterrence, there is a strong probability that Russia’s regime will continue to become more authoritarian. Putin appears to be adopting a Stalin-style policy, both domestically as well as abroad. Just a month ago, the Kremlin decided to shut down Memorial, one of Russia’s last-remaining NGOs and oldest human rights groups. Russia’s tactics are also changing: Europe not only needs a credible policy on deterrence; it also needs a way to fight hybrid wars and defend its values. 

So what could France do?

The real weakness of Macron’s proposal at the European Parliament stems from his insistence on dialogue with Moscow rather than on building deterrence. That may be due to traditional French sentimentalism about Russia, but it’s also down to tactical considerations: the willingness to stay close to Germany and to give talks in the Normandy format - between Germany, France, Russia and Ukraine - a chance. After all, a political deal with Russia could still happen; any movement in Russian-Ukrainian relations would need to take account of the Minsk agreement. Diplomats will be convening tomorrow to continue talks in the Normandy format.

The real weakness of Macron’s proposal at the European Parliament stems from his insistence on dialogue with Moscow rather than on building deterrence.

But if talks fail, it is likely that Russia will launch a "technical- military" attack against Ukraine. Were this to happen, President Macron should avoid rushing to Moscow like Sarkozy did in 2008, when Russian troops invaded Georgia. Instead, he should use the French EU Council presidency to tour EU capitals to forge a common EU response on sanctions against Russia and on ways to invest in renewables and nuclear energy to reduce dependence on Russian gas. The EU and NATO should also look at how they can improve their military presence along the border. 

France should help to coordinate a common European response for safe passage and asylum for Ukrainians fleeing the country - and give London the chance to contribute to EU responses. Macron could also use this crisis, and France’s EU Council presidency, to boldly propose common EU finance defence expenditure, for example by setting up a common debt mechanism modelled on the EU’s Covid-19 recovery fund.

Unlike what many think, France is actually being cautious about what to do with Russia. Western countries should be mindful of writing off France’s proposal for new talks on an EU security order in the medium-term - the outcome could lead to European countries doing more, together, in consultation with allies.

 

Copyright: Michel Euler / POOL / AFP

 

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