The perils of Emmanuel Macron’s strategic assertiveness

Whether or not Emmanuel Macron was right in principle to assert European strategic independence from the US during his trip last week to China, the suspicion the French president aroused in the EU has quite possibly left it further away than ever.

Macron’s emphasis on keeping a distance from both Washington and Beijing in pursuit of the elusive “strategic autonomy” for the EU is hardly an innovation among European policymakers. European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who accompanied Macron on his trip, has said similar things, though overlaid with a much more China-sceptic tone. But enthusiasts for a geopolitical Europe need to acknowledge that a shortage of unity and trust inside the EU, rather than sinister manipulation by Washington and Beijing, is the main obstacle.

We have already seen this play out in trade policy, one area where the EU has long had the power to act collectively. In the same way that there is nothing to stop European governments increasing military spending and playing a bigger geopolitical role, the EU could certainly increase its ability to use trade to project strategic influence. But while France has been keen to create new tools for intervention in trade and investment, other member states are aware that Paris’s views and interests are not necessarily those of the bloc as a whole.

In recent years the European Commission has painstakingly designed a set of trade tools to assert the bloc’s geoeconomic heft. The most politically salient is the anti-coercion instrument (ACI), which will allow the EU to use a wide range of trade and investment measures to retaliate against bullying from trading partners. France has strongly supported all this activity, and has also advocated new centralised funds for the EU to pursue industrial policy.

But the Commission will struggle to use this set of tools if there is opposition from other member states mindful of their export interests or mistrusting of the use of trade instruments to run a centralised strategic policy. Just days before Macron’s trip, the Commission gave in to pressure from some of the EU’s governments, including Germany, and handed member states a big role in determining the use of the ACI.

Even with the China-sceptic Greens in Germany’s current governing coalition, Berlin instinctively shies away from confrontation that might damage German exports and investments abroad. There were also more principled objections from liberal member states including Sweden and the Czech Republic, suspicious of attempts to politicise trade policy and the potential for it to be overly influenced by particular governments.

Macron himself has inadvertently helped fuel these concerns. In particular he alarmed some other EU governments a couple of years ago with an apparent volte-face over a flagship investment deal with China, leaving a legacy of wariness.

The signing of the Comprehensive Agreement on Investment (CAI), for which negotiations had begun in 2014, was driven through by then German chancellor Angela Merkel’s administration literally in the last hours of 2020 as Germany’s six-month presidency of the European Council of member states came to an end. Having until just days beforehand (correctly) said that CAI did little to enforce labour rights in China — the promotion of European values supposedly being one of the deal’s motivating forces — France rapidly became an enthusiastic public advocate in the days before its signature. In an unusual protocol-busting move, Macron joined the videoconference where the deal was finalised along with Merkel, von der Leyen, European Council president Charles Michel and Chinese president Xi Jinping.

Several other EU governments rapidly indicated they very much did not share France’s sudden confidence over human rights in the deal, and were alarmed by the threat it posed to diplomatic relations with the incoming Biden administration. Italy explicitly criticised Macron’s self-promotion in the videoconference.

In the event, the ratification of CAI stalled in the European parliament over precisely these issues, together with some destructive diplomacy from Beijing whereby it put sanctions on a range of European policymakers. The episode left EU trade policy towards China drifting and leaking credibility, and lasting suspicion among other member states about the Franco-German attempt to drive through CAI and the possible commercial motives involved. Von der Leyen herself admitted recently the deal cannot be passed at the moment in its current form.

If other EU strategic or geopolitical initiatives are not to suffer the fate of CAI, those leading them need to do more groundwork on building European unity. Macron’s intervention last week seems to have had the opposite effect. Trying to bounce a union containing disparate opinions into adopting a single approach to a defining global issue is not likely to get lasting results.

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