By Luke Baker
LONDON (Reuters) – French President Emmanuel Macron’s stark description of the “brain death” of transatlantic military alliance NATO grabbed headlines last week, but his views on Russia and European Union enlargement may well have greater long-term impact.
His blunt, 8,000-word discourse with The Economist prompted soul-searching in Berlin, Brussels and other European capitals, but Moscow praised it and analysts pored over nuances, broadly seeing it as a call for Europe to chart a radical new course.
The core argument is built around security and defence, with Macron positing that Europe must bolster its capacity and willingness to act, both because it cannot rely eternally on an unpredictable United States, and because within NATO it is being hamstrung by unilateral action like that of Turkey in Syria.
That leads him to two major conclusions: that a Europe with strengthened defence capability and enhanced sovereignty will better counter-balance the United States and China and should reexamine strategic partnerships, including with Russia.
And that if the European Union (EU) is to protect what it has achieved over decades, project its influence in the world and build a community of nations not just a market, it needs to consolidate gains and reassess its enlargement policy.
“Europe must become autonomous in terms of military strategy and capability,” declared Macron, setting out the first conclusion he draws from perceived shortcomings at NATO.
“And secondly, we need to reopen a strategic dialogue, without being naive and which will take time, with Russia.
“Because what all this shows is that we need to reappropriate our neighbourhood policy, we cannot let it be managed by third parties who do not share the same interests.”
On Russia, Macron went into detail about the challenges President Vladimir Putin faces, and underlined that re-engagement might take 10 years and would need to be handled carefully. But his prescription has fallen on deaf ears with outgoing European Council President Donald Tusk.
In a speech to the College of Europe on Wednesday, the former Polish prime minister dismissed the Frenchman’s ideas, calling Russia “aggressive” and bent on undermining Europe.
“Russia is not our ‘strategic partner’, but our ‘strategic problem’,” said Tusk, who has long voiced the threat many Poles feel from their former Soviet overlord.
“President Macron says that he shares the same views on this subject as (Hungarian Prime Minister) Viktor Orban, and that he hopes that Mr Orban will help convince Poles to change their position on Russia. Maybe, but not me, Emmanuel.”
The incoming European Commission, headed by Germany’s former defence minister, Ursula von der Leyen, has promised to be more “geopolitical” in nature and may take a different approach.
German analysts have pointed out that while Macron’s views on NATO and Russia appear radical, they coincide in many respects with opinions voiced by Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a presumed potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“It is perhaps time that France and Germany recognised just how much they agree,” wrote Ulrike Franke, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, comparing a recent speech by Kramp-Karrenbauer with Macron’s comments.
Yet in Macron’s call for a pause to EU enlargement and a reopening with Russia, some analysts see an unspoken assumption.
Last month, the French president stood firm at an EU summit and opposed the opening of accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia, two of six Western Balkans countries that are eager to start paperwork on joining the EU.
By shutting the door, critics see Macron as implicitly surrendering turf to Russia, which has already drawn Serbia into a trade deal with its Eurasian Economic Union and pressured others in the region to join the club.
The critics fear a fate similar to Ukraine, which signed an association agreement with the EU in 2014 only to see Moscow seize Crimea and occupy east Ukraine in response, a war that continues and that Europe does not want to be drawn into.
“The Russia question, if pushed further, divides Europe,” Ulrich Speck, a foreign policy analyst at the German Marshall Fund, wrote in an analysis on Twitter, denouncing Macron’s push for a change of strategy.
“Europe had an agreement, reached with a lot of effort mainly by Merkel and (former U.S. leader) Obama, after Russia’s attack on Ukraine. To unpack this without any clear strategy and without having support of main players isn’t constructive.”
France’s former ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, points out that EU enlargement is unpopular in France and acknowledges that the frontiers between Russia and Europe are effectively still in play.
“The fundamental question: Will Putin be satisfied with Ukraine as a buffer state between Russia and EU/NATO, or does he want it as a satellite-state?” he asked on Twitter.
The answer to that question is likely to be shaped by Macron’s vision of Europe’s future.
(Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)