President Macron’s remarks on Taiwan and the immediate reactions by policy-makers and commentators felt like a déjà vu. While he wanted to talk about the importance of European strategic autonomy, his partners understood equidistance and turning away from the US. Not that the timing was bad. A few hours earlier, China had launched a large-scale military maneuver off Taiwan with the aim of testing the sealing off of the island state. A clear message from President Macron would have strengthened France's position in the Indo-Pacific and drawn attention to the key point of his interview of early April. But things turned out differently. The speech he gave two days later in The Hague was drowned out by the never-ending criticism related to his earlier remarks on Taiwan. Yet, his earlier remarks laid the foundations for a European economic doctrine that deserves more substantial attention and more discussion. Unfortunately, this did not happen either.
Only the two
The ongoing and upcoming series of Franco-German meetings, culminating in President Macron's state visit to Berlin in July, offers a good opportunity to put the issue back on the agenda. The conditions for this are good.
There is a clear consensus between France and Germany that European sovereignty is a necessity, at least as far as public declarations are concerned. Even before Macron’s speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017, German Chancellor Angela Merkel had declared that “we Europeans must take our fate into our own hands” (29 May 2017). The Treaty of Aachen (21 January 2019), the Traffic Light Coalition Agreement (7 December 2021), Chancellor Scholz’s speech on Europe in Prague in August 2022, and finally his speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg (9 May 2023) all contain the commitment to European sovereignty.
Germany and France are also almost in full alignment on two of the most important issues of European foreign and security policy today. In the context of the Zeitenwende, Germany has moved away from its vision of a Europeanpeace order that would include Russia. Instead, both countries agree that Russia is a long-term threat that requires a resolute posture of deterrence. Yet, it is also a geographical fact (E. Macron) that negotiations will have to take place with Russia one day.
As for China, both countries share the policy of de-risking as advocated by the European Commission. Germany is also beginning to combine economic thinking with geopolitical thinking. It is becoming aware of the connection between diplomacy and power. This is evidence of an evolution that brings it closer to the French position and tradition, offering some opportunities for strategic convergence.
After last months’ tensions, France and Germany have now come to the conclusion that they are once again “doomed” to work together. Macron understands that the dream of European sovereignty cannot be realized without Germany; Scholz understands that “leading from behind” is not a viable option. Major decisions require leadership and leadership can only be exercised by what Wolfgang Schäuble and Karl Lamers referred to as the “core of the hard core”. The echoes of history are clearly audible.
Engaging Central and Eastern Europe
“European sovereignty (...) is an absolute necessity in a dangerous environment”, Emmanuel Macron stressed in this speech at The Hague on 11 April 2023. If Germany and France find a way to work closely together, they must at the same time seek dialogue with Central and Eastern Europe. This is an equally central necessity.
Poland would be an obvious partner to deepen strategic dialogues with. However, the Weimar Triangle, once praised by Bronislaw Geremek as an “intelligent political instrument”, won’t be capable of playing its role as a transmission belt. The course Mateusz Morawiecki is currently pursuing does not offer any straight-forward opportunities for “strategic reconciliation”. Positioning itself as a counterweight to the two largest economies and most populous EU members is doomed to fail. Whether Morawiecki wants it or not, the EU power centers are still Paris and Berlin. There are no signs of a shift from West to East, current speculations notwithstanding.
A new Polish government formed by pro-European and liberal forces would probably herald a new cooperation phase. But it would then take a long time for relations with Germany to normalize: “Polish perceptions of Berlin are more negative than ever before – far beyond the circles of the usual Germany-sceptics”, Piotr Buras said in a recent interview with the Tagespiegel.
Even if Franco-Polish relations are not as complicated as those between Poland and Germany, they are still marked by deep resentment. The criticism that President Chirac addressed to the candidate countries from Eastern Europe for their pro-American stance in the 2003 Iraq war – that they were not well educated and had “missed a good opportunity to keep their mouths shut” – still echoes today. But Poland is not the measure of all things.
Germany and France still maintain close and constructive relations with many Central and Eastern European member states. In the context of the upcoming NATO summit in Vilnius, they have taken on further momentum and depth. The recent visit of Lithuanian President Gitanas Nausėda to Paris (24 May 2023) reinforced this trend as did Macron’s participation in the GLOBSEC Bratislava Forum (31 May 2023). As early as September 2020, Secretary of State Clément Beaune had admitted with regard to Russia: “In retrospect, one would probably have to reverse the order of factors: first debate collectively in the European Council, travel to Poland and the Baltic states, and only then initiate a new dialogue with Moscow.” France has now realized the necessity for strategic dialogue with its Central and Eastern European partners in a spirit of equals: This was not the case just a few months ago. In his Prague speech, Chancellor Scholz called for nothing less.
There will be no alternative. In the wake of the war in Ukraine, Central and Eastern European countries have gained a great deal of self-confidence. A core challenge is now to overcome “Carolingianism”, to complete the first eastward enlargement, and to prepare for the second. The ball is in the court of Germany and France. Both of them are now fully behind Ukraine’s (and Moldova’s) accession to the EU: they must not let this opportunity pass.
The British historian Arnold J. Toynbee sees the alternation of challenge and response as a law of motion in history. The European Political Community (EPC) fits into this logic. It is the response to a tectonic shift unprecedented since the end of the Second World War. Germany must once and for all embrace this platform of cohesion and projection and, together with France, its initiator, make it a success.
After some initial hesitation, Ukraine has also recognized the added value of the EPC. Other countries to the east of the EU, not least Moldova, which hosted the last EPC meeting (1 June), are also actively supporting it. The Central and Eastern Europeans (with perhaps the exception of Czechia) have so far been rather hesitant in supporting the new forum. But if Ukraine and other accession candidates endorse it, a dynamic could get underway from which the Central and Eastern European member states would also benefit greatly. The EPC has deliberately been designed as a flexible and adaptable forum and instrument for the needs of the 47 (!) members. However, it will not be sufficient to increase Europe’s capacity to the point where – if necessary – it would be able to organize its own security, at least not within the time available.
Because the clock is ticking. It is very likely that the USA will withdraw from Europe in the foreseeable future to turn its focus to strategic competition with China, which is seen by both the Democrat and Republican Party as the “most comprehensive and serious challenge to US national security” (Lloyd Austin). Freeing resources and strategic attention is an existential issue for the Biden Administration.
Europe must prepare for this in earnest and with unity. This does not mean that Europe should be turning away from the US – which would be foolish and contrary to Europe’s vital interests. The main goal should be to do its overdue homework for being a reliable and a better partner in the security and defence realm.
European sovereignty will be possible only if France and Germany come together. This will require further additional efforts since the recent strategic alignment does not mean that all of their differences are resolved. On the contrary: disagreements over the joint projects of European defence, the “Future Combat Air System” and the “Main Ground Combat System” highlight some of the difficulties. In the end, however, there will be no other option: strategic autonomy is and remains „a process of political survival“ for safeguarding Europe’s vital interests.
References and Resources
* Landry Charrier, non-resident senior fellow at the European Centre for Global Education of the Global Governance Institute (Brussels) and at the Center for Advanced Security, Strategic and Integration Studies (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität Bonn)
* Hans-Dieter Heumann, Ambassador (ret.), former President of Federal College for Security Policy, Berlin;
This GGI Commentary is the first in a series of different perspectives on the European Political Community.