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French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the former’s visit to Berlin earlier this year

Macron's 'Initiative for Europe': Is this France's Moment to Take the Helm?

Jonathan Eyal
Commentary, 29 September 2017
European Union, France, International Institutions, Europe
In an interview with RUSI, Daniel Keohane, Senior Researcher at the Centre for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, looks at French President Emmanuel Macron’s vision for a reformed EU.

RUSI: French President Emmanuel Macron last week gave his ‘Initiative for Europe’ speech that was hailed by some as ‘courageous’ for setting out a vision for the continent. What struck you most about this speech?

Daniel Keohane: One has to bear in mind the context here. It’s not a secret that the past decade has been very difficult for the EU; the mixture of the economic crises, the new security challenges, Brexit and many other developments have made it a very difficult decade.

And that’s why Macron’s speech sounds quite refreshing, even if some of the ideas he highlighted may be rather old; he is a leader of a major founding state of the EU and his passion and commitment should not be dismissed, for the tone of the debate also matters.

We are all familiar with the ‘Blame Brussels Syndrome’, with which most of our politicians are afflicted. So it was quite striking for me when the French president kept reminding us what we had forgotten: that we are ‘Brussels’, that there has been a tendency in many European capitals to see the EU as foreign policy, when in fact, as Macron is suggesting, we should see it as our policy, that the EU belongs to us.

RUSI: Macron’s vision for European security sees structures that do not come at the expense of NATO. Are his proposed European Defence Fund and the Permanent Structured Cooperation new ideas, or is it akin to pouring old wine into new bottles?

DK: To some degree, this amounts to old wine in new bottles, but these are fancy new bottles, partly because of Macron’s own personality, but also because of the convergence of a number of factors. Macron is seizing the moment here, between Brexit and the election of US President Donald Trump.

Having said that, I find the mention of the European Defence Fund more interesting than the revival of the discussion about Permanent Structured Cooperation simply because, until very recently, the idea of the EU Commission spending any money on military research or helping member states to decide on questions of defence procurement was taboo.

We are all familiar with the ‘Blame Brussels Syndrome’, with which most of our politicians are afflicted. So it was quite striking for me when the French president kept reminding us what we had forgotten: that we are ‘Brussels’

The new effort is meant to supplement national spending, and that is useful, both for the EU but also for NATO, to which most of the EU countries also belong. Of course, we should not get too excited; the sums involved are very small in comparison to the aggregate figure of funds spent by EU member states on defence. Still, the idea is a good one: using some EU money to develop military capabilities through research.

I am a bit more sceptical about Macron’s views on Permanent Structured Cooperation. The idea was originally a Franco-British one, and it was conceived as a ‘gold standard’ for other member states to reach.

However, with the UK now leaving the EU, there is only France to set this standard, so the question poses itself: will other countries agree with France on how to do things in the defence realm, whether to mount any military interventions or what kind of capabilities one should invest in?

Unless Macron is aiming to create an exclusive group of countries with robust military capabilities, I don’t see how this concept will add much military value, because if one goes for a more inclusive model of defence cooperation in Europe – and that seems to be the trend in those discussions – it is difficult to see how many EU members can reach the high standard presented by France.

RUSI: But is Macron really interested in an inclusive defence model? He did raise in his speech the idea of ‘pioneer countries’ on defence matters.

DK: I have no doubt that, all things being equal, he’d prefer to tell others in Europe which standards in defence capabilities they should reach, and from a strictly strategic point of view, that would actually make sense. I am just not convinced that France would be allowed to get away with such an approach.

Germany does not want to sign up to a programme which is too militarily ambitious, and there have been signs that the Germans are happy to water down the concept by suggesting making it as inclusive as possible. This may change with the new German government which will be put together after the latest general elections.

Germany does not want to sign up to a programme which is too militarily ambitious, and there have been signs that the Germans are happy to water down the concept by suggesting making it as inclusive as possible

However, so far the mood music from Berlin and from officials around Federica Mogherini, the EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, the tendency is very much towards inclusivity of all states, rather than the creation of exclusive inner circles.

But if Macron can push for exclusivity and higher standards, that would be a good thing, in my view, because at this stage in Europe’s history delivering something concrete and of real military value should be the key objective.

Delivery has not been the EU’s strongest point since the policies were formally initiated in 1999, after the Franco-British Saint-Malo Agreement the preceding year.

RUSI: You mentioned the Germans, so let us concentrate on its anticipated reaction to Macron’s initiative.

DK: Macron has made it very clear that he wants to ‘reboot’ the Franco-German engine in Europe, and he wants to conclude a new Elysée Treaty. Chancellor Angela Merkel has also made approving noises in that direction, although we will have to wait and see what the new ruling coalition there will be like.

Macron’s basic approach is that, in the future, the French lead on security, while the Germans lead on economics and that this would ultimately ‘reboot’ the whole EU project. The problem, to my mind, is not that people in Berlin would be nervous about the ideas in themselves; rather, the real question is how committed German politicians and other decision-makers would be to really doing things when it comes down to military cooperation in the future.

And by that I mean military interventions, because Macron was strikingly explicit about what this exercise is for: to intervene in other places, and potentially in quite robust ways, like the French have been doing in Mali.

There is no evidence yet that, even if Germany does spend more on defence, even if it agrees to a common force and a common budget on defence there is still no evidence that Germany would be prepared to act robustly in the future.

Macron’s basic approach is that, in the future, the French lead on security, while the Germans lead on economics and that this would ultimately ‘reboot’ the whole EU project

This is why I find Macron’s call for a ‘joint defence doctrine’ so interesting, because here you can get into the detailed discussion over what is the purpose and type of armed forces you have, and what do you wish to use them for.

How far would the Germans be prepared to move to meet French ambitions in that area? That, to me, is the key question arising from Macron’s speech. There is the danger that Macron’s initiative could go the way of other European defence cooperation plans: plenty of fresh ideas and even ambitious binding treaties, but precious little on delivery.

I am not sure Macron believes that most of things he outlined would happen. But I am certain he is convinced that he – and Europe – have no other choice. And he believes that it is up to him and Merkel to reinvigorate Europe now, for if they fail to do it now, the opportunity would be lost. The French President is convinced that this is the moment for great leadership, and that it has to be seized.

Daniel Keohane is a Senior Researcher at the Center for Security Studies at ETH Zurich, where he works on national defence policies in Europe.

Banner image: French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the former’s visit to Berlin earlier this year. Macron will have to persuade Merkel of the benefits of his ‘Initiative for Europe’ reboot. Courtesy of Michael Kappeler/dpa

Author

Jonathan Eyal
Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships

Dr Eyal is the Associate Director, Strategic Research Partnerships, and International Director, at the Royal United Services Institute... read more

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