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Has European Strategic Autonomy Crashed Over Ukraine? 

Has European Strategic Autonomy Crashed Over Ukraine? 
 Philippe Maze-Sencier
Global Chair, Public Affairs, Hill+Knowlton Strategies

Has Macron’s position on the Ukraine war and his repeated calls to not humiliate Russia scuttled the chance for a strong European defense identity?

French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments that "Putin's Russia cannot and must not win the war it started on 24 February", and that G7 countries would support Ukraine and maintain sanctions “as long as necessary, and with the necessary intensity” were welcomed in Kyiv, as well as in the capitals of central, eastern, and northern Europe. But Macron infuriated many of France’s partners with his earlier remarks to not humiliate Russia. This could not only impact France’s leadership inside the EU but also its quest for a strong European defense identity in the long-term.

Destabilizing ambiguity

As a permanent member of the UN Security Council, as the most recent holder of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, and as the only nuclear power in the EU, France’s  insistence on maintaining open communication lines with Russia bewildered many. In a thinly veiled dig at Macron, Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas recently stated she felt “that […] if we want to get the message through [to Putin] that actually ‘you are isolated’, don’t call him – there’s no point”.

Macron has sought to carve out a role for France as a mediator in the current conflict . However, his choice of words on Russian humiliation has alienated central, eastern, and northern European partners,and squandered considerable political capital across the EU more generally. This rings especially true for member states already skeptical of Paris’ call for European strategic autonomy or strategic dialogue with Russia. France’s trust deficit in central and eastern Europe is not new due, in part, to a perceived anti-Americanism revived during both president de Gaulle's and Chirac’s foreign policy years. France’s benign neglect of the region over the years has not helped. This trust deficit is nevertheless surprising considering Macron came to power in 2017 as an unabashed Europhile and, arguably, the most openly Atlanticist president of the Fifth Republic.

A few months after his election, in a keynote address at the Sorbonne, Macron placed defense at the heart of his European agenda. Renewed emphasis on closer EU member states defense cooperation derived from a conviction that Europe needed to do more – for itself and by itself – to promote its interests. It also resulted from various events which impacted Europe, from Brexit to the US reassessment of NATO’s Article 5, leading Paris to consider Washington’s focus on China would mean less attention would be given to European security matters.

Macron called for a clear European defense identity within NATO, instead of  pitting himself against the transatlantic Alliance, as some took his “brain death” comments to mean.

Macron called for a clear European defense identity within NATO, instead of  pitting himself against the transatlantic Alliance, as some took his “brain death” comments to mean. However, his push for a strong European pillar within the Alliance was from its inception viewed with suspicion – and not just in the capitals of central and eastern Europe. Berlin was also wary of a post-Brexit France trying to drive the EU’s geopolitical debate and forward its interests.

As one senior French government official stressed, “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.

Macron’s thrust to see a European defense identity emerge went hand in hand with a stated desire to re-engage Russia. Inviting Putin to Versailles shortly after the French election was met with both dismay and skepticism among France’s partners. Macron’s hand was not reinforced following his 2019 unilateral decision to strategically engage Russia through an “architecture of trust and security” in Europe. Widely seen by NATO allies as challenging the Alliance’s Russia approach, it deepened distrust with central and eastern European capitals. France, again, was perceived as disregarding their fears vis-à-vis Russia’s increasing threat to their security, leaving half of the member states skeptical of the EU’s willingness to act.

The French President’s overtures to Moscow failed to deter Putin, undermining both the Alliance’s Russia position and Macron’s efforts to build a European defense identity. His initial down-playing of France’s support for Ukraine prior to, and after Russia’s invasion, his repeated appeals to give Moscow a face-saving exit, and his frequent (unsuccessful) calls to Putin, have buttressed EU countries’ decision to rely on US capabilities and reaffirm NATO’s framework as the bedrock of their security architecture. As former Estonian President Toomas Ilves stated, “the implicit corollary to ‘strategic autonomy’ is that France and Macron would be its leader. After the past three months (and probably for longer given ‘Minsk’ and ‘Normandy’), no idea could turn off central, eastern and [northern] Europeans more”.

Does this mean, though, as Bart M. J. Szewczyk recently wrote in Foreign Affairs, that Macron’s vision for European autonomy crashed in Ukraine?

The long view

Unlike the US and the UK, France has been perceived as a follower rather than a leader since February 24, with a halfhearted effort to arm Ukraine. American and British deliveries of MANPADS and anti-tank missiles are largely credited with Ukraine’s initial success to blunt Russia’s attack. Such a perception overlooks Paris' critical involvement in Western efforts to help Kyiv. France provided much-needed support to Ukraine’s war effort, ranging from early anti-tank weapon deliveries, to providing arguably some of the most capable long-range artillery systems Ukraine received (turning over 25% of its own stockpile in-doing so). It also includes satellite imagery, and the dispatch of French Gendarmerie experts to collect evidence of possible war crimes. France sent troops to Romania as part of NATO’s eastern flank reinforcement. In Brussels, it pushed for an EU-wide oil embargo and backed each of the six EU economic sanction packages against Moscow while committing over €2 billion to Ukraine. However, the ambiguity of Macron’s positioning — trying to balance France’s steadfast commitment to Ukraine with open channels to Russia — has obscured this, leading to consternation not just in Kyiv, but also in Warsaw and the Baltics.

If the reasoning behind Macron’s position may be rational, it is out of step with the expectations of Ukraine and France’s central and eastern European partners, and deepens distrust between EU’s eastern and western parts. Current EU Parliament member and former Polish Defense Minister Radek Sikorski recently wondered whether “France and Germany realise how much credibility they are losing in Central Europe with their policy on Ukraine. […] When they deliver less, per capita, than Central Europeans let alone the US, they recreate the concept of pro-American New Europe”.

If the reasoning behind Macron’s position may be rational, it is out of step with the expectations of Ukraine and France’s central and eastern European partners.

This mistrust blurred France’s support for Ukraine while undermining its plans for a more autonomous European defense. Sikorski pointed out that “when the Ukraine war subsides one way or another, [Paris and Berlin] will be surprised to discover that Central Europeans have become skeptical about going over to majority voting on foreign and security matters”.

Europe needs to look towards the future. Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine will eventually be over, as remarked by a French diplomatic official. To avoid Russia becoming an outpost of China in Europe, “a dialogue” between Moscow and Kyiv “will be needed to find out how we build a sustainable peace” with security guarantees for Ukraine. The official added France favored a complete victory with re-establishment of Ukrainian territorial integrity (including Crimea). On the other side of the Atlantic, Republicans are expecting to win the November midterms. They could well carry the presidency into 2024. The trajectory of US foreign policy towards Europe remains uncertain at best, especially as US security interests focus on the Pacific and Sino-US competition. If Europe wants to be at the table when Zelenskyy negotiates with Putin, there is a clear need (and limited time) for Europeans to become serious about their own security provisions. The EU – and France's role in it – should be an important building block in an emerging European security architecture. Whether Paris will manage to articulate its commitment to both Ukraine and EU partners remains to be seen.

Repair and convince

Macron repeated that any solution reached between Moscow and Kyiv should “respect the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”. He further argued during his June 15 Romania visit that Ukraine should only strike a deal with Russia if its government freely chooses to do so. Macron’s challenge is now to be trusted, while the challenges and threats calling on a more strategically autonomous Europe persist:

  1. the US is locking itself in its competition with China and will want to disentangle itself from Europe
  2. a 2024 Republican-controlled White House will likely be inward-focused and call upon  EU allies to do more
  3. the current arch of crisis threatening Europe, from Ukraine to the Levant, the Mashreq, the Maghreb and the Sahel hasn’t shown any signs of cooling down

NATO is no longer brain dead; the Ukraine war refocused the Alliance’s role to its core promise of collective deterrence and defense.

Macron will need nothing short of a foreign policy reset to move forward. As Institut Montaigne’s special adviser for Geopolitics Michel Duclos noted, “he needs to deliver a few gestures to regain a central position in Europe”. First and foremost, NATO is no longer brain dead; the Ukraine war refocused the Alliance’s role to its core promise of collective deterrence and defense. The debate on US detachment from Europe and the tussle for relevancy between NATO and the EU in defending the continent — so prominent six months ago — has disappeared.

Europe’s US dependence increased, and NATO will clearly remain the main framework of European security for a while, as Finland and Sweden’s recent request for accession proves. Macron confirmed this in Madrid but more is needed. In this regard, the French Army Chief of Staff's recent comments that opposing NATO and the EU was counterproductive was a step in the right direction. He highlighted that the EU-NATO complementarity was obvious, including for the United States, which is facing real domestic problems and emphasized its strategic “pivot” to the Indo-Pacific.

The Elysée should also acknowledge that the strategic dialogue initiated with Russia in 2019 failed. Any resolution of the conflict will necessitate a change of leadership in Moscow. As Michel Duclos stated, Macron is deluding himself if he thinks a long-lasting peace settlement is possible while Putin is in power. Paris will need to avoid riding solo and offer an inclusive roadmap that will limit the East-West divide. This starts by listening to others’ concerns rather than just paying them lip service.

Bart M. J. Szewczyk is right in saying that Russia’s war exposed Macron’s deep-rooted vision of European strategic autonomy. However, his read that this vision crashed in Ukraine may be exaggerated. Much will depend on France’s ability to address previous misunderstandings and play a convening role while lending credibility to a European defense identity with EU and US partners. This implies that Macron will need to position France as an unambiguous defender of EU interests, not just French ones. And this will depend on something out of Paris’ hands: America’s 2024 presidential decision and the strength of its enduring commitment to Europe.

Copyright: Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP

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