In an interview with POLITICO, French President Emmanuel Macron stressed the need for Europe to decrease its reliance on the United States (US) and avoid getting caught up in the China-US conflict over Taiwan. He believes that the European Union (EU), presumably led by France, should strive for ‘strategic autonomy’, and become a ‘third superpower.’ Macron commented that “’the great risk’ Europe faces is that it ‘gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy’.” The President’s trip to China aimed to emphasize the EU’s unity considering the tense Sino-US rivalry. However, it inadvertently revealed differing opinions regarding the EU’s stance in relation to this geostrategic conundrum.
A recent ECFR report reveals that 74% of Europeans desire reduced military reliance on the US and increased investment in defense capabilities. The report also highlights support for European neutrality in potential US-China conflict over Taiwan. Is Macron’s idea of Europe’s strategic autonomy and decoupling from the US an all-EU vision?
In a quest for transatlantic cooperation, Macron’s vision has encountered mixed responses from Central and Eastern European countries, with the exception of Hungary, which has shown its endorsement. The majority of nations in the region seem to lack widespread acceptance of Macron’s viewpoint, as his statements regarding not assuming a subordinate role to Washington were met with disapproval in several capitals.
One such response came from Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who attempted to ease tensions by proposing a “strategic partnership with the US, instead of building strategic autonomy from the US.” During his official visit to the US, Morawiecki expressed Poland’s unwavering support for Ukraine in its conflict with Russia. He emphasized the importance of forging an even closer partnership with the US, underscoring Poland’s pivotal role as a NATO member. Furthermore, he advocated for a sensible policy based on a strong alliance with the US within the framework of the EU, highlighting that the war in Ukraine represents not only the beginning of the end of Russian imperialism but also the resurgence of the transatlantic community.
In early May, Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Jan Lipavský also addressed Macron’s statements during his official meeting with US Secretary of State Blinken. As a result of their discussions, both nations issued a Joint Statement on the Strategic Dialogue, reaffirming their commitment to peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait. The statement also emphasized the Czech Republic’s intention to enhance cooperation with other partners in the region, including Taiwan. Notably, President-elect Petr Pavel risked potential
repercussions from China by engaging in a phone call with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen just two days after assuming office, becoming the first elected European head of state to do so. This act highlights the Czech Republic’s determination to strengthen support and collaboration with democratic partners in the region, while acknowledging the interconnectedness of security concerns in both the transatlantic and Indo-Pacific domains.
However, European Council President Charles Michel supported Macron’s stance by affirming that while there is a deep commitment to the alliance with the US, blind adherence to American positions on all matters is not the expectation. Michel echoed Macron’s call for a balanced approach that ensures the preservation of European interests and values.
The responses from Central and Eastern European countries to Macron’s vision of transatlantic cooperation demonstrate a diversity of perspectives and priorities within the region. As the dialogue continues, it remains to be seen how these nations will navigate their relationships with the US and the broader transatlantic community while safeguarding their individual interests and identities.
Strategic Autonomy and Military Budgets
The concept of Open Strategic Autonomy, as defined by the European Commission, encompasses the EU’s pursuit of shaping global economic governance, fostering mutually beneficial bilateral relations, and safeguarding against unfair practices. It underscores the EU’s commitment to enhance resilience in global supply chains and mitigate crises through diversification and consolidation. While the term was first introduced within Brussels’ specialized terminology in 2013 and subsequently incorporated into the EU’s “Global Strategy” document in 2016, it was President Macron who sought to make strategic autonomy a defining characteristic of European integration. Macron articulated this vision in his 2017 Sorbonne speech, emphasizing the need for Europe to equip itself with the necessary resources to assert its influence in a complex and threatening world.
However, recent reports from NATO reveal that Europe’s major powers have failed to meet the minimum defense spending targets established in 2006. The agreement among NATO Defence Ministers was to allocate at least 2% of their GDP to defense expenditures, aiming to uphold the operational readiness of the Alliance and promote burden-sharing. Currently, the US is shouldering a significant portion of the defense spending burden on behalf of its European partners.
Out of the 31 NATO members of which 22 are also EU members, only seven NATO members have met or exceeded the 2% target, with Greece, Lithuania, Poland, Estonia, and Latvia among the top contributors. Croatia closely follows with a defense expenditure of 1.91%. France and Germany fall short, allocating 1.89% and 1.49% respectively. The data highlights the significant reliance on the US, which accounts for 70% of the alliance’s total defense expenditure despite representing 54% of the economic output. The United Kingdom, as the second-largest spender, contributes approximately 6% of the overall spending, while Germany accounts for about 5%.
It is important to note that the 2% target serves as a guideline rather than a binding or punitive requirement, intended to encourage NATO member nations to assess their defense spending efforts and strive for a more equitable distribution of defense burdens. Ultimately, each member country’s defense spending decisions are a matter of national sovereignty and domestic policy considerations.
Given these circumstances, it becomes challenging to comprehend Macron’s vision of the EU as strategically autonomous in defense matters. The current state of affairs underscores the need for greater commitment from EU member states to meet their defense spending targets and reduce reliance on external partners for security provisions.
While Macron’s grievances regarding the US are to some extent legitimate – such as the unexpected AUKUS nuclear submarine deal that undermined France’s lucrative contract and concerns about American green subsidies impacting European competitiveness – it is important to note that there are greater areas of shared interest between Washington and Paris than there are conflicts. In contrast, China poses a significant challenge to the rules-based order that underpins the European Union. As a result, Macron’s belief that leveraging China’s influence can enhance France’s and Europe’s geopolitical positions is short-sighted. It is, in fact, China that stands to gain the most from his overtures. Macron’s inclination to leverage China’s influence may not serve Europe’s long-term interests. Instead, the EU should focus on addressing the potential threats to its security and values posed by China’s assertive actions.
Additionally, Macron’s concerns regarding the US must be carefully evaluated. While there are legitimate grievances, such as recent diplomatic incidents and concerns over economic competitiveness, it is crucial to recognize the shared interests and values that underpin the transatlantic relationship. It is in both Europe’s and the US’s interest to maintain a strong partnership and address common challenges, particularly posed by China.
Macron’s vision of strategic autonomy for Europe and reducing reliance on the US presents challenges for EU member states. Achieving true autonomy is uncertain. Defense spending is a crucial aspect, with many European countries still falling short of NATO’s 2% of GDP spending target. Cohesion and burden-sharing within the EU, two crucial ingredients for strategic autonomy are unfortunately lacking. Striking a balance between cooperation and asserting European interests is key to navigating the complex geopolitical landscape and securing Europe’s future.
Written by Ema Odra Raščan; Edited by Peter Janiš
Photo credit to: Ludovic Marin, AP