(Bloomberg) — In his first term, Emmanuel Macron made a point of visiting each and every EU member state. Those overtures didn’t always land.
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Now, with Germany distracted by its own concerns, the French president has refashioned himself into the EU leader he’s long believed he could be.
In areas ranging from defense to industrial policy, officials familiar with the European Union’s inner workings say that Macron is calling the shots as rarely before. And while his strained relationship with Olaf Scholz has subdued the Franco-German duopoly through which he used to get his way, these days he’s wielding influence through a series of quieter partnerships.
This new, subtler engagement marks a shift from the days when the French president thought regular phone calls might encourage Vladimir Putin to think better of invading Ukraine. He’s still liable to alienate allies with his grandstanding, but the UN General Assembly in New York last month offered evidence of his newfound restraint: for the first time in his presidency, Macron didn’t even show up.
The 45-year-old president’s fresh approach is most evident behind the closed doors of embassies in Eastern Europe, where he’s cultivating an intricate web of partnerships and turning himself into an unlikely point person on EU affairs. He’s helping center these countries’ concerns on the European agenda, according to people familiar with these interactions — and in return gaining traction on some of his own.
The result of this maneuvering is a Europe that’s beginning to use state power more assertively to defend its companies, putting it on a rivalrous footing with both China and the US. If its leaders can forge a consensus at their summit in Spain this week, they might even advance Macron’s long-frustrated calls to beef up the bloc’s military might. In sum, Macron’s helping fashion a Europe that looks increasingly French.
Macron Is Restyling EU Policy in France’s Image
Picking fights with China over cars
Stepping up subsidies to key industries
Boosting defense spending
Taking on US tech giants
Not everyone is convinced. The only Eastern European country to rank among France’s top 10 trading partners, Poland is something of an anomaly in the region, with cooperation thriving in business but largely sidestepping the two governments. When asked about Macron’s newfound influence, one senior Polish official just rolled his eyes. Elsewhere, it’s obvious to allies that Macron is changing tack. For so long pilloried in Eastern European capitals as too complacent about Russian aggression, France is suddenly ubiquitous in their defense. There’s a battalion of French troops stationed in Romania and Ukrainians are firing French long-range missiles at the Russians. One senior Lithuanian official joked that instead of Orban’s recalcitrant Hungary, NATO’s eastern flank these days includes France.
‘That Time Is Over’
With this new, more deliberative mode of engagement, Macron’s overcoming decades of ingrained French attitudes toward Europe’s margins — and even some of his own personal foibles.
Interviewed by phone about whether he agreed his successor had been more effective in wielding soft power lately, former President Francois Hollande gave a bit of advice: “France must be firm and clear but not arrogant. This is often the reproach.”
On the eve of their EU accession, Jacques Chirac famously told the Atlanticist Eastern Europeans at odds with him over Iraq that they had passed up a good opportunity to stay quiet. This summer, Macron went to Slovakia and issued an apology for not listening. “We did not always hear the voices you brought,” he said at the GLOBSEC Forum in Bratislava. “That time is over.”
In that speech, he promised to champion the EU enlargement of which he had so recently been a skeptic, and reiterated his commitment to the security of Central and Eastern Europe. That’s cemented a change of tack that’s been noticed from the Balkans to the Baltics.
Some Eastern European diplomats privately cavil that it’s easy for Macron to pivot to being a full-throated advocate of further NATO enlargement as he knows it’s unlikely to happen so long as the US and Germany stay opposed.
Still, Europe’s only nuclear power is putting money where the president’s mouth is. According to a report published Wednesday, the French auditor expects the country’s contribution to NATO to reach 830 million euros ($872 million) by the end of 2023 — a fourfold increase on last year.
He’s now making up for lost time after ceding leadership on the defense of Ukraine to others quicker to act, according to Rym Momtaz of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. After Angela Merkel retired, “On paper it was a perfect opportunity for Emmanuel Macron to decisively seize leadership of the EU in a transformative way,” Momtaz said. “But it didn’t happen.” Now, after already planning to dispatch jets to Lithuania at the end of the year under the auspices of a NATO air patrol, France is in discussions with Latvia to do the same, one of the people said. And when the Estonians tabled a proposal to procure a million rounds of ammunition for Ukraine earlier this year, they ran it by the French first, according to two diplomats who spoke to Bloomberg on condition of anonymity.
Fresh from a disappointing G-20, Macron sees major summits as an increasingly inefficient way of conducting diplomacy and is focused on engaging little and often, according to one senior French official who asked not to be named discussing confidential matters of strategy.
The president remains comfortable, events suggest, with talking shops when they’re the product of his own ideas: the Paris summit to fix global climate finance in June, for instance, or the European Political Community which meets Thursday for the third time in Granada, Spain.
Although he’s had to adapt himself to the new reality on Europe’s borders, it’s also true that within them the moment is ripe for certain ideas the president has long-championed. Several officials — French, and otherwise — pointed out that from the European Political Community to ‘strategic autonomy,’ recent months have vindicated some of Macron’s pet obsessions. He’s been talking about ‘sovereign Europe’ since winning his first election in 2017, but it took Russia’s hybrid war to take that idea mainstream.
Though he has toned down some of his freer rhetoric, in the last year France’s leader has managed to upset Taiwan, the German chancellor and the Moroccan king. His inroads in Eastern Europe need to be set against some flops behind the scenes: he wanted to travel to the BRICS summit in South Africa in August, one official said, but wasn’t invited. The French president hoped to try his hand at brokering an agreement between Armenia and Azerbaijan, but by offering to send arms to one side appears to have alienated the other.
Macron knows that winning back friends after years of perceived diffidence means finding common causes for cooperation. Romania and France have allied to ensure that clean-power definitions adopted by the EU include the nuclear energy on which they both rely. The same’s been true of Poland, to some extent — although France’s relationship with the nationalist government is far more transactional, senior officials said, struggling to name other items of mutual assistance.
By contrast, Estonia may be the best example of the prizes at stake if France can hone its pitch to its partners’ interests. The two countries worked together to hammer out the language for an EU leaders’ statement in June that urged the bloc to strengthen its arms industry, according to an EU official, generating momentum they will be hoping to build on at this week’s talks.
In particular, they pushed wording calling for the bloc to increase its “defense readiness” and for Europe to take more responsibility for its own security in the long-term — a core Macron tenet. Though France and Estonia have cooperated on security matters in the past, the Baltics had long been uncomfortable with Macron’s push for EU independence in defense and other strategic areas, relying by habit on the US-led NATO alliance.
“The more distant the US becomes, the more Europe will be under French influence,” said former president Hollande. “Many people in Europe are of course opposed to this and have an interest in staying tied to the US — good luck with that!”
–With assistance from Milda Seputyte, Konrad Krasuski, Maciej Martewicz, Jorge Valero, Michael Nienaber, Samy Adghirni, Natalia Drozdiak, Alberto Nardelli and James Regan.
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