Emmanuel Macron, Britain and European Security: Preliminary Indicators

Main Image Credit French president Emmanuel Macron meets German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, only days after his election. Courtesy of Michael Kappeler/dpa.

French President Emmanuel Macron earned many plaudits for his astonishing political rise and decisive electoral success. But he still has to win his country’s parliamentary elections, scheduled for 11 and 18 June.

In a wide-ranging interview with RUSI, Senior Associate Fellow Lord Ricketts, a former Permanent Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, National Security Adviser and Ambassador to France – when he met the new president frequently – analyses Emmanuel Macron’s first moves after he moved into the Élysée Palace. 

What can we glean about the new French leader’s priorities, given his initial Cabinet appointments?

Two threads emerge. The first is a very strong emphasis on Europe; Macron picked ministers with a very strong track record on Europe, such as Sylvie Goulard, a centrist MEP, a connoisseur of the inner workings of the EU, who was named as Armed Forces Minister, or Bruno Le Maire, a pro-European, centre-right politician from the Republicans, as his economy minister

They and others are all committed Europeans, a point further emphasised by Macron naming his Foreign Ministry as the Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs. Second, there is a strong signalling about Germany too, because a number of the ministers he picked are German-speakers and are close to Berlin, such as Prime Minister Édouard Philippe himself.

Otherwise, Macron has done what he said during the electoral campaign, which is to re-compose the political landscape and select a government from all sides of the political spectrum.

This is clearly a transition government, but my own guess is that the magnetic attraction of the newly elected president will deliver quite a substantial block of National Assembly deputies who are endorsed by the En Marche party.

I’d be surprised if the National Assembly elected next month comes out with a majority of deputies not prepared to work with the president, at least in the initial period.

A longer view needs to be taken to see where Macron is coming from. Four years ago, he was the economic staffer at the Élysée whom I and others used to visit to talk about the French economy, and in four years he has gone from there to being France’s head of state.

It’s quite an extraordinary achievement: building a movement from scratch, knocking out all the established politicians from left and right and emerging as the victor. There is no question France has decided it wants a change in political style and is fed up with the old established political parties. That mood should propel him to a majority at next month’s National Assembly elections.

Macron’s first overseas trip as president was to Berlin, and the French leader has, in effect, offered Germany a new deal, one which entails both closer European integration but also a change in the management of the euro. Will the Germans grasp the offer?

Macron was the ‘dream victor’ for Berlin. He is the only current politician in Europe who has had the courage to go out and campaign in favour of the EU; most other politicians either say nothing about Europe, or blame the EU for their national ills. Macron, however, had the courage to go out and campaign on the theme that Europe is good for France, and promised that a stronger Europe is what he will pursue. That must have been music to [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel’s ears.

Second, I think Macron is determined to tackle economic reform in France and in the labour market in particular; he will move fast to do that, using presidential decrees, if necessary, to get around potential future legislative blockages.

That, too, is what Germany has been calling on France to do for years. So, if Macron does indeed move to implement the changes he pledged to apply, the pressure on the German government after that country’s elections in September will be very strong to give Macron concessions, particularly on the governance of the Eurozone.

The French president has been careful to avoid demands that Germany fears most, such as debt mutualisation; instead, he is concentrating on questions of euro governance, which the Germans would find hard to refuse.

How do you anticipate Macron will deal with Britain?

I know Macron well, and I don’t believe that he is interested in ‘punishing’ Britain for leaving the EU. Still, Britain leaving the EU represents a heavy blow to the project he believes passionately in, so nobody should be surprised that, in dealing with the UK, the French president will give priority to protecting the interests of the EU, or that he will expect Britain to be worse off after leaving the EU.

He will, of course, be looking for advantages for France – jobs from the City of London, or whatever else may be available as a result of Brexit – but he will also want a deal. He will want a tough deal with Britain, but he will not want a failure and a disorderly exit by the UK which will damage everyone. Either way, I don’t think London should expect that it would be possible to pick off one European country from another.

How do you see the Franco–British defence relationship in the context of Brexit?

I know Macron understands the importance of British–French defence cooperation; I have talked to him on a number of occasions about it. But I think he’d wish to keep bilateral and EU defence cooperation separately.

He would want our cooperation to continue, and I don’t see why this should be affected by Brexit. On European defence, we have to expect a Franco–German push now to make progress, for example on operational headquarters where I am sure we will see new proposals.

Macron has also been campaigning for a European fund for defence, which the EU Commission has also been talking about, that will provide common funding for some defence equipment as well as R&D. But on the question of British contributions to European CSDP [Common Security and Defence Policy] operations, we don’t need any new arrangements, because the requisite texts and legal framework already exist for non-EU members to participate in EU operations. But I believe that Franco–British cooperation on defence will be in a rather separate basket from institutional European defence discussions.

If you were Britain’s prime minister now, what would you do to forge a closer relationship with the new French president?

Macron visited 10 Downing Street in February during his electoral campaign, and I would move quickly to strengthen personal links. I’d open discussions with him both on the Brexit question, but also on wider areas of cooperation between the two countries: defence, nuclear energy; foreign policy cooperation; security; counterterrorism; and the fight against organised crime. I would try to launch this broad discussion in order to highlight a basic fact: that the relationship with Britain remains both relevant and very important.

Our bilateral relationship can’t be kept sealed off from the Brexit negotiations, but the areas of cooperation that I have listed are so important that we have to work to keep the links flourishing even if, at times, the exchanges between us get very tough.

Lord Ricketts is a Senior Associate Fellow at RUSI, a former Permanent Secretary at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, National Security Adviser and Ambassador to France.


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