To arms, citizens. Two years ago, the EU – under the leadership of Ursula von der Leyen’s self-proclaimed “Geopolitical Commission” – adopted the ambitious but vague goal of developing European “strategic autonomy” at the global level.
Although invoked almost daily in Brussels, the concept has remained aspirational, even abstract. Meanwhile, the EU faces real and specific threats, with China blocking exports from Lithuania and Russia threatening to invade Ukraine. Now would be a good time to transform the EU’s undoubted influence in trade policy for strategic purposes in order to resist pressure from hostile governments.
Enter, to the sound of bugles and the thunder of horse hooves, a cavalry charge led by Emmanuel Macron. The French president leads the council of EU member states for the next six months – assuming he is re-elected in April – and will aim to overcome EU disunity and France’s own vulnerabilities to build power European geopolitics.
In theory, this is exactly what the EU needs: the leadership of a large member state with its own renowned military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities. For the presidency of the council, Macron adopted a rallying cry — “revival, power, belonging(“recovery, power, belonging”) – with more than a whiff of revolutionary zeal. He also has a personal motive to build a European strategic power independent of his traditional allies, after last September’s humiliation of being ambushed by the Australia-UK-US (Aukus) security pact and its agreement on nuclear submarines.
With excellent timing, the EU is creating a new commercial weapon, an “anti-coercion” legal instrument, which France wants to accelerate. The tool will enable rapid retaliation with trade, investment and financial measures against illegitimate pressures from foreign governments. In the future, this will hopefully deter countries like China from bullying EU states like Lithuania.
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But multiple vulnerabilities hamper France’s ability to lead the reorientation of EU trade policy for strategic purposes.
The first is the disunity of foreign policy within the EU towards China, Russia and the United States. Macron is often at odds with some member states in the eastern half of Europe, particularly over his previous softening towards President Vladimir Putin. Given Russia’s belligerence over Ukraine and the Russian-linked mercenaries sent over French objections to Mali, where France is cutting a peacekeeping force, it seems to have been a bad bet. .
Likewise, despite criticizing Chinese trade policy, Macron in 2020 recklessly succumbed to German persuasion to back the EU’s bilateral investment deal with China. The deal, now thankfully on hold, has caused dismay across the EU and within Joe Biden’s new administration in the US for making Europe look weak.
Indeed, Macron’s skeptical attitude towards the United States suggests that he is too driven by French interests, especially the Aukus episode. Given Biden’s foreign policy hesitations and the possibility of another Donald Trump presidency, he’s right about the risks of reflexive Atlanticism. But other European countries such as the Baltic states are not convinced that the EU, with its limited instruments of trade and financial sanctions, can take over. The United States is Russia’s main interlocutor in this week’s Geneva talks on European security: EU institutions are not invited. Support from other member states for France’s fury over the Aukus deal has been slow and muted.
Second, France is often too politically vulnerable domestically to use trade as an effective strategic weapon. A somewhat childish but symbolically unequivocal way of punishing Australia for Aukus would have been to close the nearly agreed bilateral trade deal between the EU and New Zealand, a country that bans nuclear submarines from its ports, while blocking a parallel Australian deal. But both countries are beef exporters, the French presidential election is approaching and the country’s cattle herders are notoriously vocal. Paris opted to delay both deals until it was someone else’s problem.
Notably, the slogan “strategic autonomy” started life as “open strategic autonomy,” but France last year argued vehemently for dropping even an abstract reference to free trade. Other member states fear that the anti-coercion tool that France strongly supports could end up being used for protectionist rather than strategic purposes.
Finally, to realize its ambitions for the EU, France needs Germany. Macron may have been soft on Russia and China, but Germany has so far been soft to the point of liquefying. German industry criticized Lithuania’s defiance of Beijing and lobbied against decoupling with China. Earlier this week, Philippe Léglise-Costa, France’s ambassador to the EU, was decidedly lukewarm about a confrontation over Lithuania. He told a seminar in Brussels that while member states should show solidarity with Vilnius, the EU should pursue any trade law violations through the usual channels of the World Trade Organization and seek a solution. negotiated.
French cavalry charges have always been beautiful to watch, but in a European context they are more often announced than executed. The arguments for centralizing some strategic power within the EU are strong. But Macron’s ability to deliver will require more European unity and French domestic resilience than is currently on display.