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Why Macron is failing on strategic autonomy

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Paul Taylor, a contributing editor at POLITICO, writes the “Europe At Large” column. 

BRUSSELS — French President Emmanuel Macron is blowing his opportunity to advance France’s vision of European strategic autonomy due to his lukewarm military support for Ukraine and his determination to keep talking to Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Freshly reelected for five years, Macron had hoped to use Paris’ six-month Presidency of the Council of the European Union to persuade skeptical partners that the hour of European defense had finally arrived and that, after the turbulent era of United States President Donald Trump, they can’t go on relying on the U.S. forever — especially as Washington is increasingly focused on the strategic contest with China. 

He packed the calendar with special summits on defense and space, the adoption of a European Union Strategic Compass intended to flesh out the bloc’s ambitions as a global foreign policy actor, and the promotion of an industrial policy meant to convince EU countries to collaborate on developing and procuring weapons. 

Paris has achieved most of its immediate deliverables. Indeed, due to the war, Europe has moved farther and faster on boosting defense spending and pooling resources — notably in commonly funded purchases of weapons for Ukraine — than even the French could have dreamed.  

EU leaders may well also agree this month on a new fund for joint weapons purchases to replenish their own forces. 

Yet, at the same time, in the eyes of many Central and Northern Europeans, Macron has undercut his political case for greater strategic autonomy by his handling of Russia’s war on Ukraine.  

To be sure, the conflict has prompted many previously complacent European countries˘notably Germany — to “get real” about geopolitical threats and boost their military budgets. But, desperate to lock the U.S. into shielding Europe from an aggressive Russia, these countries have almost unanimously turned to NATO rather than to the EU to strengthen their defenses. 

Finland and Sweden have turned the page on decades of military nonalignment by applying to join NATO, making clear they see their security as better guaranteed by NATO’s Article V mutual defense clause — backed by the U.S. nuclear umbrella — than by the EU’s Article 42.7 pledge of mutual assistance. Almost all EU counties (except for Austria, Cyprus, Ireland and Malta) will soon be NATO members, eroding one of the arguments for separate EU defense structures.

Moreover, Macron’s behavior during the crisis may have involuntarily amplified the revival of the U.S.-led alliance, which he described in 2019 as “experiencing brain death.” 

While many Western leaders have made the perilous trip to Kyiv to demonstrate their support for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Macron hasn’t. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, for example, seized the opportunity for a photogenic walkabout alongside Zelenskyy in the city’s ghostly streets and to grandstand on British arms supplies and training for Ukrainian forces. 

Numerous Western countries have trumpeted their military assistance to Ukraine, but France has remained conspicuously discreet about its own supplies of equipment and know-how. French officials say privately they have given Zelenskyy everything he requested, but Paris just doesn’t have that much compatible kit that Ukrainian forces can learn to use quickly. 

More controversially, Macron has spent hours on the telephone listening to Putin’s anti-Ukrainian rants and trying — with little impact — to convey a contrasting picture of reality. While France stresses the value of keeping channels open and preparing for the day after, U.S. President Joe Biden and many European leaders have preferred to ostracize and isolate the Russian leader. 

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki megaphoned the private views of several of his Central European counterparts when he questioned Macron’s apparently fruitless dialogue. “President Macron, how many times have you negotiated with Putin? What have you achieved?” Morawiecki asked in a public speech. “Would you negotiate with Hitler, with Stalin, with Pol Pot?”  

French officials insist Paris has played its full part in reinforcing NATO’s eastern flank, taking the leadership of a new NATO military force in Romania and increasing its presence in Estonia, but they acknowledge that Macron’s talk of a post-war security architecture for Europe that includes Russia is sowing the seeds of mistrust in some Central European capitals.  

On the sensitive question of how the war should end, Macron has called for an early ceasefire and negotiations, and warned against humiliating Russia. By contrast, the United Kingdom, Poland, some U.S. officials and Baltic leaders are saying Russia must be comprehensively defeated and driven out of all of Ukraine, including the territory Putin seized in 2014.  

Some are also demanding war crimes trials for Russian leaders and the payment of reparations to Ukraine. 

The French are right to argue that the West should not be more Ukrainian than Zelenskyy, and that it is up to Kyiv to decide what war aims are realistic and when to negotiate. Just because Ukrainian forces have far exceeded expectations on the battlefield, does not mean they can necessarily rout Russian troops in heavily fortified Crimea. And to try to turn the clock back to before 2014 runs a high risk of escalation and internationalization of the conflict — Zelenskyy made that clear in a weekend interview in which he accepted the war will end with negotiations and diplomacy. 

Whatever the outcome, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has focused European minds on boosting the bloc’s own territorial defense, well away from the kind of expeditionary operations Macron has wanted the EU to be able to conduct without having to rely on U.S. logistical and intelligence support. 

The war in Ukraine coincided with the collapse of just such a French-led military counterterrorism operation in Mali, to which several European nations had contributed. But the jihadist challenge has slipped down Europe’s priority list in light of Russian aggression and Chinese muscle-flexing. 

That leaves Macron with just one argument to try to ensure that Europe’s new defense awakening does not lead to ever more reliance on Uncle Sam: Europeans clinging to U.S. protection should be preparing for what may happen if Donald Trump — who had dubbed NATO obsolete — or a clone of his wins the next presidential election. 

Then, they may really have to do more for themselves.

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