Macron and the European strategic autonomy trope

The notion that Europe needs a separate security strategy and a military force aside from NATO mostly animates officials in Paris, but the idea always stubbornly returns.

The president of France
France keeps pushing for Europe’s greater autonomy from the United States. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Paris has not given up on advocating Europe’s strategic autonomy
  • The concept is questionable to Atlanticists and in Central Europe
  • However, it has some traction in Brussels and appeals to French voters

On his way back from China in April 2023, French President Emmanuel Macron stirred controversy by stating about the tension over Taiwan that, “[T]he worst thing would be to think that we Europeans should be conformist on this issue and adapt to the American pace and a Chinese overreaction.” The remark was in line with Mr. Macron’s push for European strategic autonomy, a concept that does not only include defense issues but security in a broader sense.

While Mr. Macron’s wording, timing and choice of context were far from ideal, he was not being completely disruptive. The European strategic autonomy concept is not new: it has been floating around since at least 2013, explicitly defined by the Foreign Council in 2016 as the “capacity to act autonomously when and where necessary and with partners wherever possible.” Vice-President of the European Commission and High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell wrote why the concept mattered in December 2020. 

Mr. Macron has been talking about a “Europe that protects” that needs to “reinvent its sovereignty” since 2017. He has supported the notion of strategic autonomy several times, exhorting Europeans to increase defense spending. In his 2017 speech, he stated, “[I]n terms of defense, our objective must be Europe’s capacity for autonomous action, as a complement to NATO.”

France left NATO’s military command structure in 1966 and only returned to all organizational systems in 2009.

However, a clear, shared definition is still lacking. While some aspects of it seem to be consensual – and have already given rise to policies at the EU level, for example, in industrial policy matters, others, especially regarding security, are more conflictual. And all depend on conditions that mix politics, geopolitics and economic aspects.

Rise of a concept

Strategic autonomy first grew as a specifically French notion as it emerged in 1994 in its national context. The idea was focused on defense issues and promoted by those who, in French President Charles de Gaulle’s (1959-1969) tradition, wanted more autonomy vis-a-vis the United States. Europeans should remain America’s allies but nonaligned or nondependent. France left NATO’s military command structure in 1966, though it remained a member of the alliance. It only returned to all organizational systems in 2009.

Read more on Europe’s dilemmas

The trick is that sovereignty applies to states. The EU not being a state, a different, related phrasing is needed for these discussions. Hence, at the EU level, we have witnessed the push for “multilateralism” in the context of Sino-American tensions and the dubbing of the new European Commission as “geopolitical” by its President Ursula von der Leyen. This terminology is well in line with the notion of strategic autonomy. 

Advocates like President Macron insist that Europeans need their defense strategy precisely to be Washington’s better allies and reassure the U.S. about Europe’s defense capabilities as a “responsible” partner. On the other hand, Atlanticists – most European states, especially in the east – fear that strategic autonomy would make Europe gradually lose American protection through NATO. And some criticize France for using strategic autonomy as a pretext to support its defense industry.

Broadening the approach to security

However, the concept has gradually included other dimensions beyond defense security, including economic, technological, commercial and industrial aspects. 

Firstly, proponents of broadening the concept say that Europe is losing ground economically and, thus, geopolitically. Its weight in the world economy has been steadily declining. 

Secondly, the notion has been pushed to the forefront by the double-whammy disruptions of the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. Supply chain troubles quickly lead to shortages in electronic microchips, fertilizers, grains, medicines, and most visibly, gas supplies. These crises highlighted Europe’s economic dependence on foreign countries, especially in Asia and, often, nondemocratic states. In this context of interdependencies, the economic power of one major supplier can turn into hard power. The idea is to reduce dependence by reintegrating some of the industrial base (backshoring) as well as diversifying suppliers whenever possible. 

The rising tensions and wars have awakened many Europeans to the reality of living in an increasingly unstable, dangerous world.

A series of regulations and standards, particularly those devised to address environmental concerns like the border carbon tax, were also pushed under that umbrella. Critics were quick to point out a disguised form of protectionism. The adjective “open” was then added to the concept to shield it from criticism of being unfair or unequal.

Increasingly more dangerous world 

The rising tensions and wars have awakened many Europeans to the reality of living in an increasingly unstable, dangerous world. The war in Ukraine erupted on European soil, but it was Washington that quickly assumed leadership in responding to it. Other festering conflicts in Europe’s neighborhood were not adequately addressed by Europeans and were left to other powers to solve (like Nagorno-Karabakh). 

The chancellor of Germany arrives for a flight to Beijing
The military section of Berlin-Brandenburg Airport, Nov. 3, 2022: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz arrives with economic policy advisor Joerg Kukies for a flight to China. Mr. Scholz was the first Western head of government to visit Beijing since President Xi Jinping was reelected as Communist Party chairman. He went to China in the company of 12 top German industry leaders. ©Getty Images

In 2019, the EU defined China as a partner, competitor, and “systemic rival.” By 2021, the European Parliament effectively froze the EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment after years of negotiations. The turnaround was due to the crushed democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, the crimes against humanity in Xinjiang province and China’s diplomatic retaliations to international criticism.

However, tensions also erupted among allies. In 2021, the France-Australia submarine deal was canceled due to the AUKUS pact between the U.S., the United Kingdom and Australia, a development decried as a “stab in the back” by the French defense minister. Also, the American practice of creating extraterritorial laws linked to the use of the dollar is resented by many in Europe as not “multilateral” nor in the spirit of equal partnership. And 20 years ago, many in Europe, especially France, fiercely opposed the unilateral U.S. intervention in Iraq. 

Read on the risks of overreach

En meme temps

To what extent does President Macron’s April remark fit the strategic autonomy agenda? The French leader’s most famous expression (“en même temps,” at the same time) could characterize the ambiguities of Paris. Many observers find it difficult to discuss human rights violations in Ukraine during the Russian aggression while at the same time not supporting Taiwan’s right to a peaceful existence. 

Besides, the innuendo was that France would not react to a Chinese invasion (it would not have the capacity to respond anyway) and that the U.S. was probably responsible for the tensions. 

The French president’s words seemed to many as going beyond the concept of autonomy from the U.S. ally. And never mind that U.S. President Donald Trump, U.S. Republican Senator Marco Rubio and various European politicians were quick to criticize a French rapprochement with China. 

However, Ms. von der Leyen, a committed Atlanticist, had been invited by President Macron to join the trip to Beijing as an en même temps gesture. And one must remember that Mr. Macron pushed for the nomination of Ms. von der Leyen in 2019 to head the Commission precisely because of her position on Franco-German defense cooperation.

Putting this ‘geopolitical demand’ already on the table may give Mr. Macron a card to play in the negotiations.

All this suggests the French president is trying to pull Europe back into the French orbit. Brexit and the war in Ukraine have moved the European center of gravity east toward the fiercely Atlanticist Central Europe, as shown by the notable rise of Poland’s role. President Macron’s recent trip to the Netherlands to strengthen links seemed like an attempt to counterbalance the trend. The same goes for his involvement in May 2023 with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy to offer Ukraine “tangible” security guarantees and support its defense efforts more seriously with troops training, materiel and kit reparations.

Read on Mr. Macron’s domestic troubles

Then, President Macron’s positioning also needs to be understood in the context of likely upcoming negotiations over France’s catastrophic public finances. France’s public debt is officially at 111 percent of gross domestic product; its budget deficit is 165 billion euros. Fitch Ratings downgraded the country’s debt in late April. In a way, putting this “geopolitical demand” already on the table may give Mr. Macron a card to play in the negotiations. 

Domestic policy also matters here. Against the backdrop of social opposition to the government’s pension reform, a “sovereigntist” and detectably anti-American posture – both popular in France – likely helps the president shape his image at home as a strong international player.



The future of this strategy depends on various parameters.

One is realpolitik. The significant business contracts with China lined up to be signed during the French leader’s trip seemed incompatible with Europe’s strategic autonomy. 

Other European countries, especially Germany, have practiced that realpolitik variety. Russian gas comes to mind (former President of France Nicholas Sarkozy happened to try in the late 2000s to pull Germany and Europe away from Russian gas with his nuclear energy policy). But the German model also depends heavily on China. A recent example: German Chancellor Olaf Scholz pushed for a deal allowing the Chinese shipping group COSCO to acquire a fourth of the Hamburg container port (today classified as critical infrastructure) against the advice of his minister of the economy. 

While this serves as a reminder that China is not only a systemic rival but also an unavoidable partner, it also shows that Europeans are divided between them and even within their countries. Gaining strategic autonomy is not that simple precisely because it is hard to separate geopolitics from geoeconomics. 

Another parameter is the instruments to advance the goal of strategic autonomy. In the face of increasingly interventionist policies by the U.S. and China, many EU regulations have acquired similar character. Under the guidance of Thierry Breton, internal market commissioner, the Commission is pushing the same type of recipe – under the guise of strategic autonomy. Now fashionable with the return of the “entrepreneurial state” ideas, these top-down “industrial” policies pose a series of issues regarding subsidies and picking winnersregulation capture and risk of cronyism, not to mention undermining competition. The risk is an ever-growing bureaucratization and less market flexibility. As Loik Le Floch-Prigent, a French industrialist, put it recently, governments should stop “preventing” economic activity with a deluge of regulations and bureaucracies before trying to tell businesses what to do. 

A final parameter regarding defense and military security is, of course, the capacity of Europe to defend itself and project itself in its neighborhood when deemed necessary. There has been a shift in reinvestment in defense in various countries after the shock of the Russian aggression, including in France and Germany, and a growing army in Poland. But there is not enough happening to pretend Europe is soon to emerge as a genuine geopolitical player with the military might to back up its values and international stands. Sovereign member states’ armies do not together make a European army. To an extent, Europe is still pulled between NATO and itself – a dilemma underlined by the controversy ignited by the French president.

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