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  • Writer's picturePaul Hansbury


I have some sympathy for Emmanuel Macron. He no doubt saw an opportunity in his state visit to China earlier this month, an opportunity to renew his calls for European ‘strategic autonomy’. He told Politico in an interview that Europe should try to become a ‘third superpower’ and should not follow, sheep-like, the United States’ policy on China and Taiwan. The risk, he told Politico, is that ‘we [Europeans] will become vassals’ of the US.

He apparently said far more. Alas, we do not know all he said. Macron’s office granted the interview on condition it could vet the copy ahead of publication. A footnote at the end of the Politico article states: ‘Some parts of the interview in which the president spoke even more frankly about Taiwan and Europe’s strategic autonomy were cut out by the Élysée.’

At any rate, Macron was tone deaf to the mood in Europe, where consensus now views China as a danger not an opportunity. Any show of disagreement with the United States is unwelcome. In other times, comments about European ‘strategic autonomy’ would be lauded – and have been, in fact. Macron has spoken of ‘strategic autonomy’ repeatedly and, in days when the waters of international relations are calm, it evidently impresses many people.

As, indeed, it does when relations with America are more turbulent. European officials were geed up by such ambitions of ‘strategic autonomy’ during the Trump administration, for example, since no one trusted Trump’s commitments to NATO or US leadership. At that time it seemed like everyone in Brussels agreed with Macron and EU officials talked up their past achievements as an actor in defence and security matters. That mood could well return after the 2024 US election.

But whenever a storm is whipped up in international security, enthusiasm for Europe’s strategic autonomy quickly subsides. And Europeans sheepishly recognise their dependence on American leadership or NATO. It happened in 2003 when Europeans were divided and impotent on Iraq. It largely happened in 2014 on Ukraine.

Macron doesn’t seem to grasp that he needs to change his rhetoric to suit the spirit of the moment. Readers might recall how he caused a stir in 2019 when he called NATO ‘braindead’. (In Russia he was cheered for the remark.)

In my view, such moments are reality checks. I admire Macron’s ambitions but think he is misguided. Europe, and I primarily mean the EU here, will always have limited capabilities to act in strategic matters on its own. Before explaining why, we should recognise that it has always been so. There has always been what the scholar Christopher Hill famously called a ‘capabilities-expectations gap’ in Europe’s foreign and security policy.

A history of failings

This goes back to the 1950s and the failure to establish a European Defence Community (EDC). The European integration project in those days comprised the Benelux countries, Italy, West Germany and France. The EDC was a bold plan for a European army under unified command. It was proposed – in the Pleven Plan (after France’s prime minister Rene Pleven) – to exist alongside the European Economic Community. It never got off the ground primarily because, ironically, the French National Assembly rejected it and did not ratify the treaty.

In the 1960s, under Charles de Gaulle, the French pursued various foreign policy ideas that aimed to create European autonomous capabilities in international affairs. But it was always about French leadership; the failed ‘Fouchet Plan’ – named for a French diplomat – aspired to remove supranational constrains on participants in the European project. De Gaulle, famously, also took France out of NATO’s military command with his own ambitions of creating and leading an autonomous European strategic bloc.

De Gaulle was in many respects an American-style president, but certainly no Atlanticist.

Adieu to all that?

So why can’t the EU transform itself into a full-fledged actor in foreign and security policy? There are two separate things at work. One is France’s complex relationship with its status and power, its ambitious of European leadership if you like, and how these overshadow cooperation. The other, which I see as more important, is the fundamental problem of EU member states guarding their sovereignty.

France sees itself as a great power still (as in many ways does the UK). France, as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, is afforded diplomatic clout independently of Brussels. It is not all that surprising it has ambitions of leading the EU’s foreign and security policy as well, given its privileged position in the UN system.

But that it is really about France’s power means that other European leaders worry that France is overshadowing the EU. Indeed, in tow for Macron’s visit to China was the European Commission president, Ursula von der Leyen. And she was only in tow as far as one can make out. Away from the Brussels bubble, one could barely notice that she was in China too – and the attention surrounding Macron’s remarks has only overshadowed her presence even more.

Von der Leyen’s accompanying Macron to China reminds me of when Nicolas Sarkozy went to Moscow shortly after the 2008 Russo-Georgia war. He had already helped to broker a ceasefire agreement between Tbilisi and Moscow. When Sarkozy went back to Moscow a couple of weeks later to clarify details, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, accompanied Sarkozy, as did Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso. But who really remembers that?

The talks could be presented as involving the EU because France had the rotating presidency of the European Council at the time. Any claim that 'European' diplomacy was at work was only ever a consequence of pressure from the Americans, who were ‘playing the role of backseat driver’ (Ronald Asmus 2010, p.198), and a sop to the EU. In Washigton they wanted ‘the Europeans’ to take a leading role. Most people with a clear eye on matters only saw French diplomacy at work.

The leaders of EU member states want the focus to be on them, not on Brussels’ bureaucrats. That is partly why EU members have never been willing to hand meaningful competence in foreign and security policy to Brussels anyway (there are other reasons). The history mentioned above is a consequence of that.

As far as I am concerned: EU leaders never will give Brussels meaningful authority to act on their behalf in the high politics of strategic affairs, that is – of defence and security. OK, it’s hardly a novel point but it repeatedly gets lost in noise about cooperation and talking up of the EU’s role in the world. Macron's actions only reaffirm my view.

For sure, the EU has taken important symbolic steps in the foreign policy realm. The creating of a High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy in 1997 at least addressed Henry Kissinger’s supposed gripe: that there was no single phone number to dial when he wanted to call Europe. (The anecdote is apocryphal but it’s a good one nonetheless.)

The Common Defence and Security component was rightly consolidated under its aegis, with small scale initiatives like PESCO which works well for technical cooperation, less so for strategic action. (Don’t get me started on the perseverance of calls for a European army!) And there are always new initiatives, usually accompanied by hot air about what the EU can offer.

It is true that the Lisbon Treaty created the European External Action Service as an EU-wide foreign service – one which has far fewer employees than the Quay d’Orsay.

Image credit: Emmanuel Macron, image by the office of the president of Ukraine ( used under creative commons licence 4.0,

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