Emmanuel Macron says people thought he was mad three years ago when he spoke at the Sorbonne about European sovereignty and strategic autonomy. Now the French president justifies those ambitions in a changed world.
Joe Biden’s coming to power in the United States sharply reopens the debate in Europe about how to respond: should the European Union reinforce its own values, interests and capacities after Donald Trump or reopen transatlantic partnership?
In a lengthy interview this week with a French think tank, Macron defends his record as a geopolitical visionary. “We are not the US,” he says, rejecting the view that change in the US means letting up on the EU’s ambitions. Autonomy means “how do we decide for ourselves” about climate, digital, China, taxation, inequality, health, education, foreign policy, defence and geopolitics. That is even if, as he admits, his call for European sovereignty was “a bit excessive”without a demos to back it up. Europe’s neighbourhood problems are its own, not those of the US. With Africa, Iran, the Middle East, China and Russia, it has different priorities.
Ireland’s close diasporic, political and personal links with the Biden administration impel Irish policy towards an Atlanticist approach that can offer certain bridging opportunities for this State between the US and the EU in coming years
Macron explicitly criticises an article in politico.eu by the German defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer which calls the transatlantic alliance indispensable for European security. Such open disagreement is rare and tells a story about this major transition.
Her German caution is matched by northern and eastern EU members, not least because they are more alert to the Russian pressures and threats animating Biden’s Atlanticist officials. As the prominent realist international relations scholar John Mearsheimer told a Dublin webinar this week, they believe Europe still needs “babysitting” in security terms.
In return for that, Mearsheimer says they will seek out close relations with European and Asian allies to contain China as a peer competitor, a strategy shared by US Democratic and Republican policy elites. Here the Germans will have difficulty, since they trade and invest hugely with China and want to keep those economic relations open. US pressure on digital security and other links will lead to tension here, for which the Germans will need EU cover.
That makes contributions to this debate from prominent EU officials like Charles Michel and Josep Borrell, who support Macron’s call for strategic autonomy, all the more significant. They want more coherent integration of EU foreign policy to deal with the growing list of global challenges, whether through more majority voting or more expenditure.
Their ambitions run up against northern and eastern caution on such change, limited budgetary provision and Polish and Hungarian opposition. Macron points to significant incremental shifts in his direction over the last three years, even if he admits France cannot deliver these objectives on its own. His activism on Lebanon, Libya, the Sahel and Islamic terrorism has an undeniably French colouration and an impatience with alternative approaches revealing older difficulties with forging EU unity on such questions.
This important debate finds Ireland in a relatively favourable if uncertain position between the three cores – the EU, the UK and the US – with which its path has been determined over the last generation.
Neoliberal globalisation no longer holds such sway in the US, the UK or the EU. They each face big adjustments to resulting inequalities and cultural shifts, as well as to a more multipolar world order
Solidarity from the EU over Northern Ireland and Brexit is now joined by similar support from the incoming Biden administration.
It remains to be seen whether this joint pressure will sway the British government towards a trade agreement with Brussels in coming days. The difference between a barebones deal and none at all is large for Ireland North and South. While economic and strategic interests would seem to point the UK towards a negotiated compromise, there is still ample room for miscalculation.
Ireland’s close diasporic, political and personal links with the Biden administration, along with the huge US multinational presence here, impel Irish policy towards an Atlanticist approach that can offer certain bridging opportunities for this State between the US and the EU in coming years. A Brexit deal with such external support would help repair Irish-British relations.
But EU strategic autonomy on climate, digital, taxation, China, security and defence challenge Ireland’s existing orientations and relatively undeveloped public debate on such foreign policy issues.
Right-wing populism has changed all three of Ireland’s core partners.
Neoliberal globalisation no longer holds such sway in the US, the UK or the EU. They each face big adjustments to resulting inequalities and cultural shifts, as well as to a more multipolar world order.
As a result multilateralism has shifted in ways that Macron recognises but has difficulty delivering upon. His activist agenda deserves Irish attention and debate.