To weapons, civilians. Two years ago, the EU – led by Ursula von der Leyen’s self-labeled “Geopolitical Commission” – adopted the ambitious but vague goal of developing European “strategic autonomy” on a global scale.
Although it is invoked almost daily in Brussels, the concept has remained aspirational, even abstract. Meanwhile, the EU faces real and specific threats, with China block Lithuania’s exports and Russia threaten to invade Ukraine. This would be a good time to shift the EU’s undoubted influence in trade policy to strategic ends to withstand pressure from hostile governments.
Enter, under the sound of bubbles and the thunder of horseshoes, a cavalry attack led by Emmanuel Macron. The French president will lead the EU member states’ council for the next six months – assuming he is re-elected in April – and will aim to overcome EU disagreement and France’s own vulnerabilities to build European geopolitical power.
In theory, this is just what the EU needs – leadership of a large Member State with its own well-known military, intelligence and diplomatic capabilities. For the Council Presidency, Macron adopted a rallying cry – “revival, power, belonging”(“ Restore, power, belong ”) – with more than a hint of revolutionary zeal. He also has a personal motive for building European strategic power independent of his traditional allies, following last September’s humiliation of being trap by the Australia-UK (Aukus) safety treaty and its nuclear submarine agreement.
With excellent timing, the EU creates a new, legal “trade weapon”anti-coercion”Instrument, which France wants to accelerate. The instrument will enable rapid retaliation with trade, investment and financial measures against illegal pressure from foreign governments. In the future, it will hopefully keep people like China from bullying EU states like Lithuania.
But multiple vulnerabilities hamper France’s ability to lead the realignment of EU trade policy for strategic purposes.
The first is disagreement over foreign policy within the EU vis-à-vis China, Russia and the US. Macron is often at odds with some member states in the eastern half of Europe, especially over its former mitigation to President Vladimir Putin. Given Russia’s war on Ukraine, and the Russia-linked mercenaries sent despite French objections to Mali, where France is disbanding a peacekeeping force, which was apparently a bad bet.
Similarly, despite being critical of Chinese trade policy, Macron unwisely succumbed to German persuasion in 2020 to support the EU’s bilateral investment agreement with China. The agreement, which has now been graciously suspended, has caused uproar across the EU and within Joe Biden’s incoming administration in the US for making Europe look weak.
Indeed, Macron’s skeptical attitude towards the US suggests that he was too much animated by French interests, especially the Aukus episode. Given Biden’s doubts about foreign policy and the possibility of another Donald Trump presidency, he is right about the risks of reflexive Atlantism. But other European countries such as the Baltic states are not confident that the EU, with its limited trade and financial sanctions instruments, can take over. The US is Russia’s most important negotiator in this week’s talks in Geneva on European security: the EU institutions are not invited. Support from other member states for France’s anger over the Aukus agreement was slow and muted.
Second, France is often too politically vulnerable domestically to use trade as an effective strategic weapon. A slightly childish but symbolically unequivocal way of punishing Australia over Aukus would have been to complete the EU’s almost complete bilateral trade agreement with New Zealand, a country banning nuclear submarines from its ports, while blocking a parallel Australian agreement word. But both countries are beef exporters, France’s presidential election is taking place and the country’s beef farmers are notoriously noisy. Paris chose to postpone both transactions until it was someone else’s problem.
In particular, the “strategic autonomy” slogan began life as “open strategic autonomy”, but France last year vehemently called for abandoning even an abstract reference to free trade. There are concerns among other member states that the anti-coercive measure that strongly supports France will eventually be used for protectionist rather than strategic purposes.
Finally, in order to realize its ambitions for the EU, France needs Germany on board. Macron may have been soft on Russia and China, but Germany has so far proved pap to the point of liquefaction. German industry has criticized Lithuania’s defiance of Beijing and is lobbying against decoupling from China. Philippe Léglise-Costa, France’s ambassador to the EU, earlier this week clearly sounded lukewarm about a confrontation over Lithuania. He told a Brussels seminar that, while member states must show solidarity with Vilnius, the EU must pursue any breaches of trade law through the usual channels at the World Trade Organization and seek a negotiated solution.
French cavalry charges have historically been great to watch, but in an EU context they are more often announced than executed. The argument for centralizing some strategic power in the EU is strong. But Macron’s ability to deliver will require more European unity and French domestic resilience than is currently on display.