Europe May Cheer Biden’s Win—But It Threatens Macron’s Grand Project

France is going to have a harder time selling “strategic autonomy” without the foil of the Trump administration to drive it.

This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.

French President Emmanuel Macron reacts to a standing ovation after addressing a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on April 25, 2018.
French President Emmanuel Macron reacts to a standing ovation after addressing a joint meeting of the U.S. Congress at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on April 25, 2018. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In many European capitals, Joe Biden’s election victory has been welcomed with a sigh of relief after four years of trouble with President Donald Trump. But alongside the rejoicing over America’s promised return to multilateralism, Biden’s win is laying bare old and new rifts regarding Europe’s role on the world stage.

French officials in particular find themselves wondering to what extent Biden’s presidency will hamper their already difficult push for a more geopolitically independent EU, a pet project of President Emmanuel Macron in recent years, but one which seemed to draw power from Trump’s Europe-bashing and unilateral approach.

Is the change in the American administration going to see Europeans letting up” on the effort to build greater strategic autonomy?, wondered Macron in a lengthy recent interview. Macron fleshed out his vision of a Europe that can hold its own in a world dominated by giants like the United States and China. While Macron called the United States “our historical allies, he also stressed the cultural and geopolitical differences between the two sides of the Atlantic, and made clear that Europe should pursue strategic relevance “for itself” and “to prevent the Chinese-American duopoly.” 

Concretely, he argued, this means further efforts to beef up European defense, while tackling technological dependence on the two superpowers when it comes to 5G networks and cloud data storage. He also urged action against Washington’s financial clout, which became apparent when U.S. financial sanctions threatened EU firms doing business with Iran after the United States withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal in 2018. 

A stronger France via a stronger Europe has been a mantra of Macron’s for years.Coming from Paris, none of this is particularly new. A stronger France via a stronger Europe has been a mantra of Macron’s for years—and has been part of France’s political DNA for decades. The Elysée’s attitude towards NATO, for instance, has been ambivalent since President Charles de Gaulle, who in 1966 withdrew French forces from the alliance’s command—a decision that would be fully reversed only 40 years later.  

“If you look at how France has positioned itself in the West from de Gaulle onwards, it’s precisely this: ‘We are an ally of the United States, with which we have common values, but we are no vassals and we must be respected,’” said Christian Lequesne, a geopolitics and international relations professor at Sciences Po university.

The key question for Paris is whether, absent Trump as a foil, its European partners will still embrace the same attitude. In recent years, thanks to Trump’s trade wars, NATO-bashing, and political and economic fights over everything from Iran to climate change, Europe seemed ready to carve out a bigger independent role for itself. French and German officials, incensed by U.S. economic pressure, spoke openly of restoring “economic sovereignty.” In 2018, then-European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker entitled his State of the Union speech “The hour of European sovereignty.” Last spring, German Chancellor Angela Merkel demanded “greater strategic sovereignty for the EU.”

Talk was cheap, though, and that’s clearest when it comes to defense. A European Defense Fund was set up to develop military technology and improve cooperation, but the resources allocated by the latest seven-year EU budget are 40 percent lower than the figure originally proposed by the Commission. The European Defense Agency says that aggregate spending in this area only got back to pre-financial crisis levels last year, with the share of research and technology in defense budgets still substantially lower than it was in 2007. And despite a military cooperation agreement signed in 2018, an integrated European army remains little more than a fantasy at this stage.

Those fault lines have become evident in recent weeks due to an unusually public argument between Macron and German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. In a POLITICO op-ed, she argued that “illusions of European strategic autonomy should come to an end: Europeans will not be able to replace America’s crucial role as a security provider.” Macron said later he “profoundly” disagreed with that view.

In recent years, Europe seemed ready to carve out a bigger independent role for itself.In some ways, the divisions look deeper than they really are. Last week, the French and German Foreign Ministers penned a joint column acknowledging that the transatlantic partnership must become “more balanced.” Especially in the wake of Trump’s decision to pull thousands of U.S. troops out of Germany, Berlin knows that Europe will have to accept more burden-sharing, as American resources are increasingly devoted to the confrontation with China.

The bigger difference is one of emphasis. Kramp-Karrenbauer insists that Europe needs to boost its military spending and take on some of the United States’ security tasks in its own neighborhood—but as a way to be taken more seriously by Washington and reinforce NATO and trans-Atlantic ties, not to supplant them.

Macron’s problem is that, even if he settled for the German approach, it’s not clear it would materialize. One minister’s point of view is not necessarily the position of the entire government, especially a cobbled-together coalition like the one that governs Germany, noted Hanns Maull of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Any continuity in Germany’s current approach is further clouded by Merkel’s planned departure from the Chancellery next year.

In that sense, this month’s Franco-German spat could be an attempt by Macron to keep up the pressure, noted Maull, given a general lack of trust in Berlin meeting its commitments on defense spending. While Germany’s defense budget has gone up in recent years, it remains below the nominal 2 percent of GDP threshold that NATO states are supposed to spend on defense. Germany is now estimated to be spending about 1.6 percent of its GDP on defense, compared with France’s 2.1 percent. And when it comes to expenditure in major equipment and related research and development as a share of the total, Germany’s is one of the lowest among NATO members. The German armed forces’ top brass has long been sounding the alarm about the poor state of the Bundeswehr, a situation that Maull described as a “mess.”

That, as much as Biden’s victory, is what makes it seem unlikely Macron will see any big breakthrough in his vision for a more muscular Europe. Further, other EU and NATO members, like Poland and (to a lesser extent) Hungary and the Baltic countries, are even less willing than Germany to pursue strategic independence from the United States. 

“The French President is quite isolated,” said Lequesne, of Sciences Po. “Many EU states are still relatively eager to accept American hegemony, and that’s where Macron’s project is faltering.”

Michele Barbero is an Italian journalist based in Paris.

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