Macron’s View of a Europe in Flux Is Music to Putin’s Ears | Wilson Center

Macron’s View of a Europe in Flux Is Music to Putin’s Ears

Russian President Vladimir Putin poses with French President Emmanuel Macron in August. Source: Kremlin.ru

BY MAXIM TRUDOLYUBOV

President of France Emmanuel Macron recently set the tone for a somber reassessment of the state of Europe. As festivities were going on in Berlin marking the thirtieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, Macron spoke of “the exceptional fragility of Europe.” Europe is on “the edge of a precipice,” the French president said in an interview with the Economist magazine. Europe needs to wake up or “we will no longer be in control of our destiny.”

Some unpacking is needed to fully grasp this language. Home to the world’s happiest nations (Finland, Denmark, Norway, Iceland, and the Netherlands were the top five in this year’s World Happiness Report) and the world’s best and most comfortable cities (Vienna, Zurich, Copenhagen, Munich, Helsinki, and others consistently make it to the top of most global indexes of “livability” or quality of life), Europe is an economic powerhouse. The EU is the world’s largest exporter; the size of its economy is second only to the United States’ or China’s, depending on whether one uses nominal terms or purchasing power parity.

Inequality is rising all over the world, including in the EU countries, but the process of economic polarization in Europe has generally been less dramatic than in the United States and certainly much less precipitous than in Russia. Intercountry disparity is easing. Economically, newer members of the EU are slowly converging with the prosperous founders of the union. Poland, Slovenia, Romania, and other countries that joined the EU between 2004 and 2013 have seen their per capita incomes, in purchasing power terms, rise faster than the bloc’s average.

Most Europeans enjoy the kind of universal access to health care and education and the kind of freedom of expression and movement that is unsurpassed in any other region in the world. Even the special cases of Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s self-proclaimed “illiberal democracy” in Hungary or Polish politician Jaroslaw Kaczyński’s legislation that helps his party pack the Supreme Court with loyalists stand out only because of the continent’s high democracy and rule-of-law standards.

Against this background—which many Europeans seem to be taking for granted—prophesies of doom are ridiculously common in Europe. Low growth rates, state regulation, in-migration from poorer regions, negative birth rates, and waning faith in the beliefs and traditions of Europe are the issues that form the usual repertoire of the doomsayers on the right. Those on the left highlight inequality, climate change, and insufficient protection of social rights.

What Macron has in mind when he talks of “the edge of a precipice” is something different. A Europe that, in Macron’s formulation, risks “disappearing geopolitically” is a traditional power, not a historical entity, a tourist mecca, or a collection of first-rate amenities. The Europe Macron is talking about is the kind of power that could be described in terms that Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping would understand. This potential Europe, one with a robust geopolitical presence, has to be, in Macron’s view, a modern military power.

As Macron sees it, to strengthen Europe in the face of America turning its back on it and Russia pursuing its designs on the EU, the continent needs a better military, preferably, in Macron’s vision, a force that would be separate from the one existing under the NATO umbrella. This is a view that is popular among the EU founding members but unacceptable to most latecomers. Those polled in France, Germany, and Italy support the idea of investing in the defense capabilities of the EU, in a “European army” rather than in NATO, while those polled in Poland are not receptive to Macron’s ideas and favor NATO strongly. Championed by Macron, the European Intervention Initiative, a project that currently has fourteen member countries and no standing troops, is presented in France as a symbolic precursor to Europe’s possible future army.

“What we are currently experiencing is the brain death of NATO,” Macron said in a phrase that is by far the most quoted of his entire interview with the Economist. Behind this harsh assessment is the insecurity that European powers feel when they face an unpredictable Russia, an unpredictable United States, and the changeability of other actors, particularly Turkey, whose foreign policies do not align with those of most European nations. But it is Macron who openly questions the viability of NATO.

“You have no coordination whatsoever of strategic decision-making between the United States and its NATO allies. None. You have an uncoordinated aggressive action by another NATO ally, Turkey, in an area where our interests are at stake,” Macron said. Did that mean that Article Five was still functional, an Economist journalist asked Macron, referring to the NATO charter article that states that an attack on one member of NATO is an attack on all of its members. “I don’t know,” was the response. “But what will Article Five mean tomorrow?”

This sort of attitude terrifies Eastern Europe, especially the Baltic countries, and is not shared by most German politicians. “We must not divide the Europeans on security matters,” Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, wrote in a recent op-ed. “Germany will not tolerate any special arrangements, not vis-à-vis Moscow and not on any other matters. Our neighbors in Poland and the Baltic can trust us to take their security needs as seriously as we take our own,” Maas continued. 

Even if it is leaving the EU, Britain is interested in keeping some military cooperation with the continent, but London, like Berlin, does not favor the creation of a parallel military force to NATO’s. In practical terms, this means Macron’s European army will remain a distant dream, while NATO’s credibility may indeed weaken.

All of this is music to Russia’s ears. For decades, Moscow has sought to drive a wedge between Europe and the United States, between older and newer EU members, and that fissure is now appearing on its own. “Macron’s call for strengthening ‘Europe’s strategic autonomy’ and overcoming its security dependence on the U.S. plays into Russia’s long-term interests,” writes Vladimir Frolov, an astute commentator on Russia’s foreign policy.

This is not to say that Macron is wrong to engage with Russia. Political, economic, and cultural exchange can only be good for both sides. Macron has shown that he shares many of Putin’s attitudes, including rejection of “regime change” and EU expansion. But there is one more thing that could be learned from Putin: he never hesitates to point out Russia’s strengths. Macron could do the same and remind Russia and Russians of the successes of Europe, not just of its insecurities and bleak expectations. Europe has its strengths too. Highlighting them may well help—at a future point—to relaunch the centuries-long process in which Russia learned from Europe without losing itself. 

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Maxim Trudolyubov is a Senior Fellow at the Kennan Institute and the Editor-at-Large of Vedomosti, an independent Russian daily. Mr. Trudolyubov was the editorial page editor of Vedomosti between 2003 and 2015. He has been a contributing opinion writer for The International New York Times since the fall of 2013. Mr. Trudolyubov writes The Russia File blog for the Kennan Institute and oversees special publications.
More posts by Maxim Trudolyubov