"SE PROMENER D'UN PAS AGILE AU TEMPLE DE LA VÉRITÉ LA ROUTE EN ÉTAIT DIFFICILE" VOLTAIRE
mars 22, 2023
Emmanuel Macron is a highly intelligent man and a profound, articulate thinker.
He is also the President of France. Outside observers sometimes find it difficult to distinguish between the two, particularly if they come from a country less cerebral than France. A few weeks ago, Macron has delivered a long interview to the French magazine Le grand continent.
In his long talk, Macron has a lot to say, most of it stimulating, about many subjects: from population growth, to relations with Africa, to Covid, to populism and nationalism. He also delivers a robust and, at least for me, convincing defence of his position on islamist terror and extremism.
One main theme is his longstanding support for European integration, a real cornerstone of his vision; while he stops short of defining the form that this political Europe should take, the concept of European sovereignty and “strategic autonomy” is at the centre of his vision. Some other topics are given particular prominence and are specially interesting for the outside observer.
At the centre of Macron’s economic analysis, there is a call to “re-forge” capitalism. In itself, it is not new. Since the financial crisis of 2008, a debate about the future of our societies has been taking place all over the world.
There is wide spread consensus that the impact of increasing inequalities in many countries, of the rise of populism and authoritarian tendencies, of the mixed results of globalisation, of the difficulty to dominate the tumultuous process of the digital revolution, as well as the critical challenge of climate change and now of the pandemic, require changes in the way the economy, the market and capitalism work.
One can find traces of this consensus in places that would have been unlikely only a few years ago, such as the Davos Forum, the Business Round Table, the Economist and the Financial Times.
Macron dwells at great length with all this in a way that is generally consistent with the conversation that is taking place, but with a twist that is politically significant. If what you have in mind is a clear break from the past, you also have to define the past in a way that makes the break desirable and convincing.
The past Macron wants to depart from is the “Washington consensus” (others would have chosen “neoliberalism”), that he describes as a world in which the pursuit of many social goals such as the fight against inequalities or climate change is subordinate to the search for profit, open markets and the benefits of globalisation. He also suggests that this is the main cause for the surge of populism in many countries.
The future Macron would like to promote is one where the priorities of the “Washington consensus” are reversed and goals like the fight against inequalities and climate change take precedence over everything else.
This way of framing the issue, begs a number of questions.
Neoliberalism is a doctrine that has influenced the course of events in some countries such as the US, but much less Europe. Our continent is a highly regulated space, with the biggest welfare in the world that absorbs between 25 and 30% of GDP. In most countries the tax burden ranges from more than 40% to more than 50% of GDP.
Neoliberal influence has all but been absent in places like France and Italy where state intervention is still rampant. The rise of populism in some northern countries is not principally related to a controverse about climate change, nor to increasing inequalities (in any case much more modest than in the US, especially if you consider France), but to the difficulty to handle a large number of immigrants.
The structural reasons for the fractures that affect European societies and are also the cause of the rise of populist movements, are complex and important but they have little in common with the Washington consensus.
Very few people, at least in Europe, would challenge the idea that the functioning of the market, capitalism as well as globalisation must be regulated in order take in greater account broader social goals.
What defines the debate is not whether the market should or should not have priority over these goals. The question is rather that, since their pursuit will require massive investment that can only be financed by sustained growth, how social and economic imperatives can be reconciled.
What is puzzling is that Macron was elected in 2017 when all these issues were already at the centre of the debate, on a political platform that was deliberately focused on the need to reduce the rigidities of French society, to liberalise the economy and to increase productivity.
In the meantime, he has achieved some fiscal reform, such as the abolition of the wealth tax, and a reform of the labour market with the aim of making it more flexible.
One therefore wonders if this new emphasis on the reform of capitalism opens the way to a radical change of approach, but none of his concrete political decisions suggests that it is the case. On the other hand, in other parts of the interview he advocates pragmatism and gradualism, particularly when it comes to climate change. For instance, he issues belated but candid self-criticism for the ill-advised increases of petrol prices that triggered the ”yellow vests” movement in 2018.
What to make of this apparent ambiguity? The key is probably in Macron’s insistence on European sovereignty and strategic autonomy. For him, the real culprit is not capitalism, but globalisation and particularly free trade.
In this respect the French position, never historically very favourable, has hardened considerably in recent times. Public opinion is more than ever opposed to it. CETA, the free trade agreement between the EU and Canada that took eight years to negotiate, has been ratified by the French Parliament only after an agonising debate and with a small majority.
It is at the moment very unlikely that France could ratify the agreement with Mercosur. Here again, Macron is not totally against the European tide. Globalisation is much less popular than it was a few years ago, and this applies not only to Europe.
The appetite for new ambitious trade agreements is fading. In recent times, the European Commission has been careful to negotiate the new agreements such as the one with Japan in a framework that avoids the necessity of national ratifications.
However, even the European Parliament could become less forthcoming. Confronted with the gap created in various aspects of the digital revolution, not only France but many European countries that were traditional uncompromising champions of free trade and non-intervention, are advocating some form of “industrial policy”, including the opportunity to vet foreign investments particularly from China.
The pandemic has given more prominence to the danger of relying on production chains that make us too dependent on one, possibly not entirely reliable, supplier; it is the case for some pharmaceutical products, but also for other critical technologies and raw materials.
Words like sovereignty and strategic autonomy are now widely used in the European debate. We all remember Angela Merkel remarks that “European must do more to take their destiny in their own hands”.
And yet the language used by Macron could well be too much for a number of member states; not only for those traditionally more free-trade minded in norther Europe, but also for Germany.
For instance, when he discusses how to revive multilateralism, the perspective seems more like a new Westphalian balance of power than the institution-based multilateral system established under US leadership after WWII; a system to which the majority of Europeans are very attached. The protection of European industry and agriculture against carbon leakage, if as expected the EU’s ambition on climate change is not matched by third countries, is a shared concern but it is doubtful that many other EU members will want to push it as far as France.
Most Europeans are conscious that in the present world nobody is really “sovereign”, not even the United States. Our world is irremediably interdependent. This is the main difficulty that we have in devising a response to the Chinese challenge, but it is true in general.
Nothing really happens in one country only, not even in one continent. The “Pfizer” vaccine against Covid is in fact the result of joint work with BioNTech, a smaller German company. It is right to pursue sovereignty and strategic autonomy; however, it is not an absolute goal but rather a matter of degree.
The trade-off between achievement of “more” sovereignty and the acceptance of more interdependence is not always clear cut. For instance, despite all her shortcomings, the EU is acknowledged as a regulatory power whose rules spread widely around the world (the so called “Brussels effect”).
To turn inward and decouple from the outside world would risk to compromise this important asset. It is therefore not surprising that in her official statements, the Commission has chosen to qualify the concept of strategic autonomy with the word “open”.
In the next few months, the Commission will produce proposals on most of the issues raised in Macron’s analysis. On that basis a concrete discussion can start and the capacity of Europeans to converge in a meaningful way will be tested.
What about the US?
No other relationship is as important for Europe than the one with the US. Again, much of what Macron says on this subject is not controversial. We shall of course welcome Biden’s election, but nobody believes that things will go back “to the good old times”.
Not only because a golden age of transatlantic relations never really existed, but more importantly because America, Europe and the world have changed since the Cold War. Trump’s years have taught us that we cannot any longer count unconditionally on American support.
The necessity to rebuild the relationship on a new basis is acknowledged by all; nobody thinks that it will be easy, even with Biden. This concerns the economy, technology, but also security. The need for Europe to do more for its own security and that of its neighbourhood is recognised by many Europeans.
More or less at the same time as Macron’s interview, Jean-Yves Le Drian and Eiko Maas, the French and German foreign ministers, have published an article in the Washington Post, in which they hail Biden’s victory as the opportunity for a new start and express the hope to repair the fractures that have emerged in recent years, from Iran, to trade and to the commitment to multilateral institutions. They also define the need for Europe to do more for its own security and the strengthening of NATO as “two sides of the same coin”.
One would have expected Macron’s comments to reflect the same emerging Euro-Atlantic consensus. Instead, he pushes the concept of autonomy much further both in the economic and in the strategic dimensions. It is the least convincing part of the interview.
As with the economy and capitalism, he must define the option that he rejects, the unacceptable alternative to what he wants to propose. After his criticism of the Washington consensus, it is now the turn of a European foreign policy that, according to him, risks being “dependent” on that of the United States.
In this case also, who would dare to disagree? The problem is that Macron pushes the concept of autonomy from the US very far indeed; he even suggests that in some sectors of new technology we could or should decouple from them.
For instance, it is right to say that we should have more control on cloud computing and the way the data of our citizens are treated and stored; it is also true that Gaia X is a promising project. It is certain that with the US companies that at present dominate the market, we have legitimate issues concerning privacy, tax and competition. However, to think that we could completely decouple from them is unrealistic and probably counterproductive.
This is even more true for security. The one passage that has been noticed most in Macron’s interview is when he takes issue with Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK), the German minister of Defence. A few days before his interview, she had written an article where she bluntly states that “illusions of European autonomy must come to an end”.
Macron strongly rejects the statement and claims that Merkel doesn’t agree with her minister. Apart from the diplomatic wisdom of interfering in the relationship between a foreign leader and one of her ministers, Macron misses an important point that has not been lost on many other observers.
In AKK’s article, this statement, possibly too blunt, comes immediately after a consideration about the continuing importance for Europe of American nuclear deterrence. Whatever the value of a bigger European effort to contribute more to its own defence, the need of which incidentally AKK strongly emphasises also for Germany, deterrence is a special case.
In many fields of politics, we can do “more” or we can do it gradually. Instead, deterrence is like pregnancy: you either have it or you don’t. Nobody in his right mind can think that Europe could do without US deterrence for any foreseeable future, let alone think that French nuclear deterrence could do the job.
Despite recent effort to promote European cooperative programs, the same is unfortunately at the moment and for the foreseeable future true about other aspects of defence: sophisticated conventional capacity, space and cyberwar as well as the application of artificial intelligence to the battlefield.
The London based IISS has concluded recently that even in the great majority of the projects that have been earmarked for enhanced cooperation, Europe is not autonomous and depends on at least some American logistical support.
This is not a reason to diminish the effort, but it invites some caution. As the article by Le Drian and Maas rightly states, a bigger European autonomous effort in both the economy and security, is complementary to the strengthening of the Alliance. Indeed, a more self-confident EU would make the Alliance more effective.
Another point of concern in Macron’s interview is his approach of what Europe should do in the confrontation between China and the US. The reader cannot help thinking that Macron’s suggestion is for some sort of autonomous role, almost that of a mediator.
This is dangerous. The structural asymmetry in the transatlantic relations is not the only reason why the Atlantic Alliance is still of paramount importance. The emergence of a plurilateral confrontation of powers after the cold war and the end of the illusion of an unchallenged American hegemony, makes the unity of western democracies even more important, albeit for different reasons.
This is particularly true in the case of China. The main issue for the international relations of the coming decades will be who writes the rules of the game in the fields of security, trade, the economy and technology; something that until now has been shared between Europe and the US. What are at stake are not only interests, but also values. Unless western unity is maintained, big damage will occur for both Europe and the US.
Unfortunately, in discussing the specificity of European foreign policy goals in relation to the US, Macron doesn’t limit his analysis to stating that we have a different geography, not necessarily the same analysis on some issues and that this leads us sometimes to have different interests and priorities.
He goes further and says that “our values are not quite the same”. This is a step too far for many Europeans because it undermines the very foundations of the Alliance.
True, we are more “social democratic” as he says, but is this a sufficient reason for such a blunt statement? Is it wise to suggest it when the US are in the process of electing a President whose program is not only to revive the Alliance after the dark Trump years, but also to make America a bit more “European” in her domestic policies?
There is the legitimate suspicion that Macron fears that the change of track in Washington could have the perverse effect of weakening the European resolve. If that was the case, it would mean that whatever consensus has been forged about the need of more “autonomy”, is very fragile indeed and it would not be a strong posture for the French President to take.
Why all this matters
All this matters because Macron is the President of France, the second biggest power in the EU and an indispensable actor when it comes to a discussion of a badly needed European foreign and security policy. Sometimes words are not neutral and their perceived meaning also depends on who utters them.
When an Italian calls for financial solidarity, no matter how persuasive his arguments may be in a particular context, he will immediately be suspected of asking for a free lunch. When a Frenchman speaks in strong terms about sovereignty and autonomy particularly vis a vis the US, he will immediately be suspected of neo-Gaullism.
It is a suspicion that Macron would certainly reject.
He is a true European and his vision of Europe is very different from that of General De Gaulle. Of course one question still stands: while calling for more European sovereignty in foreign and security policies, is he also ready to share some French sovereignty within Europe? He can also claim that some of his apparently provocative statements should not be taken in isolation, but are qualified by more pragmatic arguments in other parts of the interview.
This is true, and outside observers should be aware that a certain distance from a grandstanding verbal rhetoric of French politicians and the more pragmatic reality of what they actually do, is typical of the French political debate. However, too many intellectual niceties, not only can be a treacherous for a political leader but they also risk blurring the message.
One can also suppose that the bluntness of certain statements reflects a willingness to get things to move faster and an impatience for the excessive caution of some of the partners, mainly Germany.
This is understandable and it probably plays well with his domestic audience, but the price that Macron risks paying is a damage to his chances of European leadership. A leader must do two things: indicate objectives and create consensus around them.
One problem is that ambitious long-term objectives, however desirable, are only as credible as the credibility of each intermediate step that is necessary to attend the final goal. The other problem is that, while a leader should not limit himself to follow the troupes but be ahead of them, he should be a few yards and not many miles ahead.
Macron risks failing on both accounts. In indicating steps that are not considered credible by a majority, he fails to promote consensus; certainly, in large parts of northern Europe, but also in Italy. What he has to say could still be an important stimulus for debate, but would not grant him leadership.
This would not be good for Europe because we need French leadership in a number of areas. Otherwise, the whole burden will fall on the shoulders of Germany. A country that is already engaged in the daunting task of keeping together East and West and North and South in the management of the economy. To also take the lead on some of the important issues raised by Emmanuel Macron, is probably too much to expect from a nation that is facing elections and an uncertain political transition.
former general director of the EU Commission
21 Novembre 2020
Riccardo Perissich est ancien directeur général de la Commission européenne ; il est senior fellow de la School of European political economy de la LUISS University à Rome, auteur de « L’Unione europea, una storia non ufficiale (Longanesi) » , « Stare in Europa : Sogno, incubo e realtà (Bollati Boroghieri) ». Il est membre de la Fondation Notre Europe – Institut Jacques Delors (Paris), de l’International Institute for Strategic Studies (Londres), de l’Istituto Affari Internazionali (Rome) et de l’Aspen Institute Italy (Rome) –
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