Jolyon Howorth reflects on Emmanuel Macron’s recent comments on Europe’s approach to China, highlighting that his message on European strategic autonomy should come as no surprise – but that there are challenges facing its implementation.
The timing was unfortunate. The tone was misjudged. The wording could have been subtler. But Emmanuel Macron’s geopolitical message about Europe’s need to avoid being sucked into a hypothetical US war with China was hardly surprising.
France’s overall approach to diplomacy, as well as its handling of transatlantic relations, has long been structured by the triptych coined by former foreign minister Hubert Védrine: ami, allié, non-aligné (friend, ally, non-aligned).
Macron’s message was relatively straightforward. In the context of growing US confrontation with China over Taiwan, Macron warned against Europe getting “caught up in crises that are not ours”. The worst course for Europe, he insisted “would be to think that we Europeans must become followers […] and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction”. It is not in Europe’s interest, he asserted, “to accelerate a crisis over Taiwan”.
These statements are hardly incendiary. They do not imply alignment with Beijing over Taiwan. Nor do they imply abandonment of a thriving democracy and a vital market. They do insist that Europe’s interests in the tussle over Taiwan’s future are not identical to the interests that the Biden administration is currently struggling to articulate over the implementation of its official ‘one China’ policy.
Macron faced a storm of criticism for having uttered his comments at a moment when Europe feels more indebted to the US than ever because of Washington’s robust military support for Ukraine. He was also condemned for having spoken just as Beijing unleashed a simulated military encirclement of Taiwan, in response to the high-profile visit to the US of the Taiwanese president Tsai Ing-Wen. He was further castigated for having seemingly broken with the more hard-line approach to Beijing articulated by Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen, whom Macron had invited to accompany him on part of his state visit to China, ostensibly to demonstrate EU unity and resolve.
These elements of framing were undoubtedly unfortunate, as was his choice of words such as “followers” and even “vassals” to describe Europe’s relations with the US.
The strongest criticism of Macron, however, was reserved for his observation that, for Europe to get sucked up in a military confrontation between China and the US would prevent it “from building up its strategic autonomy”.
This was taken by many commentators to be an overt slap in the face for Washington, a shocking lack of gratitude given US support for Kyiv. The Polish prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, flying off to Washington just as Macron landed back in Paris, counterposed by praising the US as “our most powerful ally”, the friend that “guarantees the security of Europe”.
Yet, from the very outset of his presidency – in his speech at the Sorbonne in September 2017 – Macron turned the notion of European ‘strategic autonomy’, into his geopolitical battle-cry. This was not a French aberration. Strategic autonomy was the key objective formulated by the EU itself in its 2016 Global Strategy document, before Macron even came to power.
In a major European report, published in April 2023, the case for strategic autonomy – often referred to, especially by Macron himself, as “European sovereignty” – was made consistent with the strengthening of the transatlantic link. It has been suggested that, despite the public uproar, many European governments agree with Macron.
The global context is important. China’s rise suggests the advent of multipolarity. The US has stated unambiguously that its number one priority is its confrontation with China. The knock-on effect of US sanctions continues to hamper Europe’s trading relations with a range of countries. In the context of American domestic politics, the return to power next year of Donald Trump (or of a Trumpian look-alike) cannot be ruled out. European dependence on the US is widely seen as imprudent.
Macron described such dependence as “the great risk” facing the EU over the coming decades. In his interview, he doubled down on the need for strategic autonomy as Europe’s key combat – not just in the military field, but also in the areas of technology, energy, and finance.
The fact that a French president, and particularly Macron, should persist in trumpeting this battle-cry is in no way surprising. The problem, however, is not in the statement of the objective but in its implementation. There are three major challenges here.
The first is the widespread suspicion of France that prevails across Europe. France’s official commitment to the strengthening of the EU is widely seen as being driven more by national interest than by European idealism. Macron’s comments reinforce this feeling.
The second challenge derives from the deep divisions among EU member states over geostrategic issues such as relations with the US and attitudes towards Russia and China. On the surface, the Ukraine war seems to have temporarily reduced those divisions. But they have not been transcended. Poland’s vision for Europe is seen as diametrically opposed to that of France and Germany. Even relations between Paris and Berlin appear to have sunk to an unprecedented low.
In October 2022, Macron was instrumental in launching the project for a European Political Community as a platform for political coordination across the entire European continent. This might be a useful forum for engaging countries such as the UK that do not have formal frameworks for dialogue with the EU. But on the whole the EPC serves to highlight more obstacles than it resolves.
The third challenge for strategic autonomy – particularly in the defence field – is the very existence of NATO and the re-emergence of the US as the European defender of last resort. But here, paradoxically, there may be light at the end of the tunnel. Macron has always insisted that European autonomy is also in the interests of the US, as Washington seeks to prioritise its tilt to Asia.
Europe will remain a strong friend and ally of the US, even while it asserts its (non-aligned) right not to follow blindly every twist and turn of US grand strategy. If the EU could succeed in coordinating its military capacity sufficiently for the US to risk shifting resources to the Asian theatre, this would be a win-win for the transatlantic relationship.
Macron’s comments on Taiwan should, therefore, be viewed in the long-term context of a gradual reconfiguration of the transatlantic alliance. When viewed in this context, the response has been somewhat overblown.
By Jolyon Howorth, Jean Monnet Professor ad personam and Professor Emeritus of European Politics at the University of Bath.