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Will Macron’s Vision for European Defense Gain Traction?

Amid Russia’s aggression and uncertainty around U.S. leadership, Macron is right to call for Europe’s self-reliance in defense

By: EBR - Posted: Tuesday, April 30, 2024

With the specter of a return of Trump to the White House, the conversation on European defense has moved from “whether” to “how.”
With the specter of a return of Trump to the White House, the conversation on European defense has moved from “whether” to “how.”

by Judy Dempsey*

CELIA BELIN/ SENIOR POLICY FELLOW AT THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS AND HEAD OF ITS PARIS OFFICE

In many ways, Macron’s vision has already gained traction because history caught up with it. When the French president developed the concept of European sovereignty in his Sorbonne speech in 2017, it was a visionary idea meant to acknowledge the facts of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump. He was ahead of the curve then but only by a few years.

Seven years later, Europe has experienced a geopolitical awakening under the pressures of a changing global (dis)order, of protectionist impulses during the COVID-19 crisis, and of Russian aggression. With the specter of a return of Trump to the White House, the conversation on European defense has moved from “whether” to “how.”

However, for months into the war in Ukraine, Macron’s calls for strategic autonomy were intrinsically contradicted by his position on Russia, which raised suspicion around his ultimate goals. With Macron voicing his support for EU enlargement to Ukraine and breaking the taboo on the potential need to send troops on the ground, France is finally credible as a team player and therefore more apt at leading a collective European response to the Russian threat or to U.S. uncertainties.

The best way for France to build upon its newfound credibility would be to help Europeans overcome internal difficulties in structuring Europe’s defense industry, to identify pragmatic and rapid response to Ukraine’s current military shortcomings, and to lay the groundwork for the EU enlargement to come. Consolidating is what Europe needs in this area of turbulence, not another grand vision.

KRZYSZTOF BLEDOWSKIVI/ SITING ADJUNCT PROFESSOR AT THE RZESZOW UNIVERSITY OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY AND MANAGEMENT

This is difficult to say but his direction of travel is the right one.

The volte-face of France about treating Russia as an existential enemy sounds astounding given Macron’s failed earlier attempts to glad-hand Putin. Yet his pragmatic turnaround reflects a grim reality. Europe’s hard right—and its apologetic nod to Russia’s goal of restoring spheres of influence—is gaining strength. And the French now grasp that Europe’s dwindling geo-economic heft will fade further without hard power.

To make matters worse, Germany continues to go it alone in Europe on business-as-usual with China, opposition to nuclear energy, and caution on Russia. Macron has realized that the Franco-German duo faces too many disagreements to lead Europe. His European defense initiative is thus the right one but augurs failure if not couched in a broader context.

That context is NATO. Few Europeans would subscribe to a novel defense structure without American participation. Sovereign strategic logistics, reconnaissance, or systems integration cannot emerge overnight. So, to gain traction on the well-intentioned French idea, perhaps the first steps should be for many European publics to swap social programs for higher defense outlays. If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.

KATE HANSEN BUNDT/ SECRETARY GENERAL OF THE NORWEGIAN ATLANTIC COMMITTEE

“We need a more European NATO in Europe,” Finland’s former president Sauli Niinisto told me April 4 in Oslo. In a Europe facing ever-deepening Russian aggression and the prospects of a less predictable U.S. security guarantee, Europeans need to get their act together on defense. That should not come as an EU-only option, but as a strengthened European pillar within NATO. I am not sure the latter is Emmanuel Macron’s vision. If it’s not, he will not succeed.

Firstly, because he will lack German support. Without Berlin’s financial clout and political support, it will not be possible, even with substantial support from Eastern Europeans.

Secondly, it will exclude Europe’s strongest military power, the UK. “The European Union cannot defend Europe,” NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg has repeatedly warned. What European allies must do is take Article 3 in the Atlantic Treaty seriously and start investing heavily and more rapidly in their own defense. That goes for France as well.

Visions are one thing; concrete action is what matters. One success recipe for Macron might be to increase the French defense budget significantly, step up its commitments to Ukraine, and take the lead in creating and coordinating true European capabilities and strategic responsibility inside NATO. Otherwise, we might end up with a European strategic loneliness.

DAVID CADIER/ ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF GRONINGEN

It already is, to some extent. Combined, Russia’s war against Ukraine and the shadow of another Trump presidency are somehow vindicating Emmanuel Macron’s long-standing call to strengthen European defense capacities and European sovereignty. Some countries that had traditionally regarded such ideas with suspicion are gradually warming up to them. Czech President Petr Pavel explicitly echoed them a few months back, for instance. The new convergence in France’s and Central Europe’s strategic outlooks stands out as an important variable when considering the prospects of European defense.

Of course, other factors will also determine how much these ideas concretize. In the past, the French president has been more skillful at articulating a vision than at securing the buy-in of partners or at designing a roadmap for implementation. The president’s habit of throwing ideas around like fireworks in the sky of European debates can be unsettling, but it’s also an invitation for other contributions and debate. The European Political Community is a good example of a French-proposed initiative that has become fully Europeanized.

It will also depend on the extent to which Macron’s vision for European defense ends up being caricatured—whether in media and policy debates, as has sometimes been the case with his past initiatives—or by the French president himself, through uncontrolled quips. Interestingly though, today Macron critics argue his words on Russia and Ukraine are not enough and demand more deeds, while a few years back his mere declarations on the same topic—or on NATO or China—were enough to trigger their ire even though they did not translate into concrete actions.

CAROLINE DE GRUYTER/ EUROPEAN AFFAIRS CORRESPONDENT FOR NRC HANDELSBLAD

Yes, I believe Macron’s vision will ultimately gain traction.

Macron is one of the few national leaders who has a strategic vision on national and European defense—and security at all. The rest only thinks of narrow national interests, or is stuck in the denial phase.

What strikes me each time I talk to French officials is how their shift away from accommodating Russia to supporting Ukraine fits into their broader view of European security threats. They believe Russia is not just attacking Ukraine but attacking Europe, too. They think if Russia is not defeated in Ukraine, it will be emboldened to take the war—in whichever way—to EU/NATO territory. This is why France, which previously opposed Ukraine’s accession to NATO, now outright supports it.

Moreover, since Macron’s remarkable Bratislava speech, France considerably intensified its contacts with Central and Eastern European countries, beefing up its diplomatic, economic, and military presence there.

Finally, Macron has no illusions about the future of the U.S. security umbrella for Europe. He just doesn’t want to wait for Washington to scale back its commitment and thinks Europe should be prepared.

In short, the French vision is consistent and self-confident, while in other European capitals one mostly encounters confusion and fear. It may take some time, though, before the others acknowledge this.

ALEXANDRA DE HOOP SCHEFFER/ SENIOR VICE PRESIDENT FOR GEOSTRATEGY AT THE GERMAN MARSHALL FUND OF THE UNITED STATES

France has won the battle for European strategic autonomy. Despite the war in Ukraine prompting an American and NATO reflex among EU member states, the strengthening of European defense capabilities now has consensus across Europe, including in non-EU member states like the United Kingdom, Norway, or even Turkey. Washington also advocates for increased responsibility-sharing with European allies, a principle I have been advancing since 2021. This is both an EU and a NATO moment.

In fact, over the past two years, there has been a convergence of perspectives. While Central, Eastern, and Nordic countries have deepened their bilateral defense ties with the United States, they have also increasingly aligned with France’s call for a more geostrategic EU and the need to prepare for future crises where the United States might have a diminished role and/or where NATO might not be the most suitable platform for action. This rapprochement was facilitated by President Macron’s recent diplomatic outreach to partners on the Eastern and Nordic fronts.

Concurrently, Paris acknowledges the EU’s short-term reliance on the U.S. security guarantee and defense industry, but this reality should not hinder the strategic goal of investing in European defense capabilities and industrial base: a more robustly equipped Europe will emerge as a more dependable ally for Washington.

Consequently, the call for stronger European defense extends beyond Macron’s vision. Amid growing uncertainty about U.S. leadership and reliability, and geopolitical crises in and around Europe, the EU can no longer avoid the imperative of investing in its own defense capabilities and industry.

JOHN R. DENI/ RESEARCH PROFESSOR AT THE U.S. ARMY WAR COLLEGE’S STRATEGIC STUDIES INSTITUTE

Macron’s vision for European defense is unlikely to gain traction because of three own-goals. First, although his rhetorical shift on Russa with regard to Ukraine has been welcome, it remains to be seen whether some of the more practical manifestations of the shift will come to fruition.

For instance, why did France stand in the way of ammunition procurement outside of Europe when it has been obvious for months that Europe would not meet its own commitment? And why does it appear to still lag so far behind on national contributions to Ukraine’s defense?

Second, even though Macron has improved relations with key Central European states, France continues to under-resource its commitment to deterrence by denial on NATO’s Eastern flank. Yes, it is the framework nation for the Enhanced Forward Presence (EFP) unit in Romania, but why is its presence there undersized and unengaged in the principal threats confronting Bucharest—namely, Russian drones crashing into Romanian territory and Russian electronic warfare efforts across the Black Sea?

Finally, and most broadly, the European defense industry remains overly nationalized and segmented. Why are there so many European countries making tanks and armored vehicles? Defense rationalization is long overdue, yet Paris plays a key role in frustrating such efforts and ensuring inefficiencies persist.

The views expressed above are the author’s own.

MARTIN EHL/ CHIEF ANALYST AT HOSPODARSKE NOVINY

I still wonder if that’s only a vision or a viable strategy that should be executed. Given how Macron’s defense turn is met with enthusiasm in Central Europe, I tend to believe it could be a strategy if adopted and executed properly.

But it is impossible to expect this from the EU institutionally. Countries like Hungary can torpedo it because of their Russian connection and countries like Spain because their vital interests are not being threatened enough to change course.

Then we have a possibility of coalitions of the willing within the EU and NATO simultaneously, which is precisely what we could see when it comes to aid to Ukraine, the Czech ammunition initiative, or Germany’s European Sky Shield Initiative. This approach is better than constant squabbling over legal or political issues within the EU institutions, which are not fit for this purpose at the current setup.

Thus, a coalition-of-willing approach could move European defense forward, allowing the execution of programs like joint procurement—see the German tank coalition of organizing procurement of possibly hundreds of new Leopard tanks. Macron is creating the leadership for such a coalition of states that feel threatened by Russia and giving it proper political weight while Germany remains indecisive.

FEDERICO FABBRINI/ FULL PROFESSOR OF EUROPEAN LAW AT DUBLIN CITY UNIVERSITY

Common defense is the greatest of all challenges faced by the EU today. The war in Ukraine has pitifully exposed the EU’s weaknesses in this domain, and its member states’ reliance on U.S. hard power. Yet, Uncle Sam cannot be taken for granted forever.

As the only elected politician with a clear vision for the future of European integration, President Macron has anticipated the challenge, pushing hard to deepen cooperation in military affairs for a time when the EU and NATO no longer have America’s backing.

Yet, France’s ideas in defense policy often appear hegemonic and thus they alienate EU partners. To avoid falling into this trap, Macron should come up with a supranational plan. In 1955, France voted down the European Defense Community Treaty. Is it time to resume it?

JUSTYNA GOTKOWSKA/ DEPUTY DIRECTOR OF THE CENTRE FOR EASTERN STUDIES (OSW), WARSAW

Macron’s change of mind should be welcomed. These days the French thinking overlaps largely with the Polish one. As I understand the change in the Elysee, Russia is perceived as a military threat to Europe that needs to be contained and the West should be bolder in helping Ukraine militarily, without excluding direct support.

Ukraine should become part of the EU and NATO. The Eastern flank needs to be military reinforced with NATO’s deterrence and defense strengthened and with the EU playing a vital but supportive role. In all this, European allies need to do much more and prepare for a gradual decrease in U.S. military engagement in Europe.

I couldn’t subscribe more, with a few “buts.” France should put its money where its mouth is, both in terms of financing its military and supporting Ukraine. The processes within NATO should be politically, financially, and military reinforced by Paris among others. As much as the support from the European Commission for the arms industry should be welcomed, Brussels should not try to overcentralize the decisionmaking in this field.

It should be the final change in French strategic thinking without going back to the idea that it is necessary to make a deal with Russia on the European security order.

CAMILLE GRAND/ DISTINGUISHED POLICY FELLOW AT THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS

President Macron has often created unease with his bold comments and uncoordinated proposals, sometime at odds with the mainstream views of his peers. Since his May 2023 Bratislava speech, it is nevertheless fair to acknowledge that his shift on Ukraine has been candid and sustained for over a year and has put France at the forefront of the debate.

Macron has genuinely recognized the new era and the need to do more, talking of a war economy and promoting strategic ambiguity toward Russia rather than drawing red lines that constrain assistance to Kyiv. This has generated remarkable support among many Eastern flank and Nordic allies. With uncertainty regarding the level of U.S. commitment to European security, the renewed French approach might well gain more traction with fellow Europeans.

To build on this momentum, Macron needs to turn words into action by expanding French support to Ukraine, adapting a robust French military to demanding European scenarios, and smartly leveraging the respective evolving roles of NATO and the EU. To rally many skeptics, Macron will need to continue to carefully engage his partners to build a broader consensus around his vision for the European defense and security.

BRUNO MACAES/ AUTHOR AND FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT FOR THE NEW STATESMAN

As I see it, Macron has come to believe that European strategic autonomy is connected to Russia’s defeat. If Russia is defeated then Europe’s dependence on the United States will also be reduced as the main threat to our security disappears. That was a positive development but only at the level of grand strategy. I continue to see very little in the way of genuine investment in strategic autonomy with real resources and difficult compromises on French sovereignty.

If Trump wins in November, then we can expect both a sense of acute crisis and the possibility of transformational change. One way forward is to have a significant budgetary capacity for defense at the EU level. Trump, not Macron, will be the founding father of European strategic autonomy.

ESTER SABATINO/ RESEARCH ANALYST FOR DEFENCE AND MILITARY ANALYSIS AT THE INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTE FOR STRATEGIC STUDIES (IISS)-EUROPE

Macron’s posture on European defense changed substantially over the last year. From the Bratislava speech, it became clear he would become more vocal on his stance against Russia and in support of Ukraine and the neighboring countries. This translated into a bilateral security agreement and increased transfer of equipment to Ukraine as well as cooperation agreements with Moldova to improve its defense capacities.

Macron further proposed the return of strategic ambiguity in Europe through the suggestion to deploy European troops on Ukrainian soil. But rightly or wrongly, European countries were not ready to follow the French lead.

In the definition of European defense, France can help greatly—much more than Germany when it comes to political declarations. In this process, France should not lose its focus as sooner or later the war in Ukraine will end and the future European defense needs to be ready for any challenge.

To gain support from EU countries, Macron might have to come to terms on other aspects, namely on the industrial understanding of strategic autonomy, as Central and Eastern European countries—but not only them—value cooperation with non-EU partners who have so far provided that ready-to-use off-the-shelf equipment.

Nonetheless, before embarking on the journey of a stronger promoter of European defense, France should reconcile the different internal institutional voices to ensure that political proposals become deeds.

EUGENIUSZ SMOLAR/ FOREIGN AND SECURITY POLICY ANALYST AT THE CENTRE FOR INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS, WARSAW

It should, especially in the face of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, but I sincerely doubt it if one means the creation of truly joint military capabilities of strategic importance. All previous similar projects suffered from four basic caveats:

First, nothing should be done to weaken NATO and ties with the United States, which form the basis of European security. Second, as threats are regional, countries have been driven by different threat perceptions. Third, member states have armies, and the EU, like NATO, does not have its own armed forces—and there is no consent to create them. And fourth, there is the challenge of creating a union-based structure for defining the goals and forms of engaging the armed forces.

Macron is right: the EU should become an independent and self-reliant defense community in the face of the potential paralysis of NATO in the case of a veto of even one country. But it all comes down to the question: who will decide and be accountable to whom for the use of the European army in a potential conflict when the prospect is the death of the citizens of member states?

The EU will not be able to create such structures or mechanisms in the foreseeable future, given member states’ divergences on numerous issues of much less importance and consequence. In this case, the EU should focus its efforts on deepening cooperation with NATO, coordinating the urgent expansion of the industrial base for armament purposes, unifying types of weapons, increasing the resilience of states and societies, and the setting a legal basis for efficient troop transport. It would be an important achievement if we could do “just” that.

JAN TECHAU/ DIRECTOR, GERMANY AT THE EURASIA GROUP

Most European leaders understand that some form of European defense along the lines of Macron’s ideas is needed today. The first problem is that they have no idea how to pay for it. Genuinely autonomous defense would be so expensive it would force governments to change established spending patterns in ways that could trigger political turmoil at home. Also, most governments are too indebted to borrow more, and growth will likely stay modest. So where is the money going to come from?

The second problem is that most Europeans don’t want to be led by France or Germany (or both)—the only two countries in Europe remotely capable of leading. Despite what most believe, Europe continues to be a low-trust environment. Unless Europeans feel that they can trust their neighbor with their lives, a pooled, shared, and genuinely integrated European defense will be hard to build.

The third problem is that the Europeans have no idea how to compensate for the potential loss of American nuclear protection. How to keep Europe safe from nuclear blackmail without U.S. nukes is the real question behind strategic autonomy. Not even Macron knows the answer.

BEN TONRA/ PROFESSOR IN THE SCHOOL OF POLITICS AND INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS AT UNIVERSITY COLLEGE DUBLIN

One can only hope so and some signs are propitious. Macron has shifted his position further and faster than many. The rhetorical shift has been decisive, and accompanied by very un-French humility in acknowledging failures in listening attentively enough to partners in Central and Eastern Europe. He has also matched this shift in rhetoric with some additional—albeit limited—bilateral support to Ukraine.

Macron is also swimming with a (late) tide of concern at the implications of a Trump 2.0 presidency and an associated crisis or hollowing out of the U.S. commitment to NATO. He is also, of course, building upon a longstanding French approach to strategic autonomy, which prioritizes the development of European defense capacity, ambition, and readiness.

For all this reinforcing momentum however, Macron faces political headwinds both foreign and domestic. Cynics might suggest that the zeal of the convert might evaporate as quickly as it has appeared. There is also a serious lag between Macron’s rhetoric and French performance in military support to Ukraine—which remains a shadow of that of Germany while his partnership with Olaf Scholz remains weak.

Finally, Macron’s political base at home is under real pressure from the Russo-accommodating political horseshoe of left and right.

His head and heart are in the right place. Can his political and diplomatic muscle deliver?

PIERRE VIMONT/ SENIOR FELLOW AT CARNEGIE EUROPE

The slowly simmering sympathy for President Macron’s views on European defense is largely due to two factors.

One is the downturn of Ukrainian military fortune on the Donbas battlefields. The second one stems from U.S. politics that have stalled, for the last six months, the country’s military assistance to Ukraine. If one adds Trump’s possible electoral success in November, President Macron’s calls for a truly European strategic autonomy and a more aggressive attitude toward Russia have been rightly perceived as the natural hedge.

But come change in these constituting factors and old habits re-emerge fast. With the U.S. Congress’s recent vote in favor of a $61 billion (€57 billion) assistance to Ukraine many European nations are now convinced the alert is over and European Union defense policy can revert to normal—meaning NATO. As for a possible Trump return, the same nations are already pleading for the “everyone for themselves” approach that was experienced during Trump’s first term.

The French vision of a future European defense gives a useful conceptual frame. But transforming the present EU into a credible security provider will require a much more decisive political drive from all European nations and a genuine willingness to build a common strategic culture.

*nonresident senior fellow at Carnegie Europe and editor in chief of Strategic Europe
**first published in: Carnegieeurope.eu

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