French President Emmanuel Macron and British Prime Minister Theresa May will discuss their defense relationship, among other things, at a bilateral summit on January 18. Franco-British collaboration is vital for European defense. This is not only because they are the two leading European military powers at NATO, but also because they have the most ambitious bilateral military relationship of any European countries, based on the 2010 Lancaster House treaties.
“A sovereign, united, democratic Europe.” This is the vision French President Emmanuel Macron outlined in a landmark speech on September 26, at the Sorbonne in Paris. Calling for a more united and democratic EU is not new. However, for a leader from a major country to passionately assert that European integration reinforces national sovereignty, rather than diminish it, is refreshing.
The last decade has been difficult for the EU, considering the combination of economic and security crises, alongside the 2016 UK decision to leave the Union and the rise of Euroskepticism across Europe. Even so, “We forgot that we are Brussels . . . Only Europe can give us some capacity for action in today’s world,” Macron declared. He bolstered his bold vision with a breathless list of policy proposals, including on European defense.
Macron’s defense vision seems to draw less on traditional French strategic ideology, or a teleological idea of European integration, and more on the urgent strategic necessity for Europeans to work together infused with a strong sense of political opportunity.
The leaders of France, Italy, Spain and Germany met in Paris on 28 August for a summit hosted by President Emmanuel Macron in the latest indication of France’s efforts to assume a key leadership role in the post-Brexit EU. Yet, the event is also an occasion for the French president to smooth ruffled feathers among EU partners, particularly in Rome, after a series of diplomatic spats led to a plummeting of relations and the resurrection of old grievances between the two countries. A second, and arguably more important bilateral summit between France and Italy is also scheduled for 27 September in Lyon, another indication of the need to patch up relations and promote an outward image of cooperation between the two EU neighbours.
Tensions between France and Italy soared in July following the French government’s decision to nationalise shipbuilder Stx/Chantier de l’Atlantique rather than give Italy’s Fincantieri a majority stake, thus reneging on an agreement between Italy and France’s previous government. Diplomatic relations had already been tested earlier that week when President Macron organised a peace conference on Libya without inviting the Italian government that considers itself a key player on the Libyan dossier. The two events, which are unrelated, created a perfect storm among Italians, resulting in some public spats and a queue of French ministers flying to Rome to patch up relations. Joint declarations and photo ops have not healed the wound, however, and tensions persist.
“La France est de retour”. This is how French Prime Minister Édouard Philippe commented on the results of the June elections when La République en Marche!, the new party founded by Emmanuel Macron, swept into power. There are two things to note about this concept of “France is back”.
The first is internal. The new president and his majority represent a disruption compared to the previous two presidencies, which were generally perceived as suffering from paralysis. There is therefore a window of opportunity to launch a renewed and reformist season comparable only to the ones experienced by France following moments of deep crisis, as was the case in the aftermath of World War I or the Algerian crisis. It translates into the concept of an “eclipse moment”, a time in French history when the nation is re-established in its prerogatives. Paradoxically, this positive reading of the Macron Presidency reverses the so-called “declinist” theory, which fuelled the rise of populism in France and argued that modernity was endangering the nation and that nationalist policies were needed in order to restore and revive the “real” France.
Rebooting the Franco-German locomotive of European integration is a key condition for reviving the fading EU project. Compromises will have to be made on fiscal and defence policies, and it is unclear whether the parties have the political capital necessary.
The election of pro-European Emmanuel Macron as president of France has reignited hopes that the so-called Franco-German engine, providing political impetus to European integration in the past decades, might be revived. While Macron’s election proved a rebuke to the populist challenge, it remains to be seen whether and how it will manage to rebalance the partnership with Berlin, which is overwhelmingly premised on Germany’s growing strength and clout at the European level. While pronouncing herself supportive of the new course in Paris, Chancellor Angela Merkel, like the rest of Europe, remains in a wait-and-see position regarding the ability of President Macron to fulfil his ambitious pro-EU agenda.