Macron sets scene for vigorous debate on future of Nato
The French believe European defence is an idea whose time has come
French president Emmanuel Macron told the Economist that “we are currently experiencing . . . the brain death of Nato” and Europe “must regain military sovereignty”. Photograph: Johanna Geron/Reuters
The mostly ageing audience of academics, defence officials and parliamentarians were not the sort of people one associates with exuberance. But the mood at a conference on European defence was unusually cheerful, one day after President Emmanuel Macron told the Economist that “we are currently experiencing . . . the brain death of Nato” and Europe “must regain military sovereignty”.
Many of the 250 people who gathered at the French Senate on November 8th have made the promotion of European defence their life’s work. The colloquium, under the auspices of the Robert Schuman Foundation, EuroDéfense France, and the Senate commission on foreign and defence affairs, heard speaker after speaker say Donald Trump has focused the minds of Europeans on their own vulnerability.
“Three great French ideas, for European defence, investment in defence industries and the affirmation of Europe as an actor on the world stage, have become popular in the European Parliament,” said Bernard Guetta, an MEP from the centrist Renew group, of which Macron’s République en Marche is a founding member.
“In 2016, Trump questioned the automaticity of US protection if an EU member state were attacked by Russia, ” Guetta continued. “Doubts about the US guarantee led to new openness to the idea of European defence. There should be a statue to Trump in every town in Europe!” he joked.
By using provocative terms in his interview with the British magazine one week ago, Macron set the scene for a vigorous debate on the future of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation at its December 3rd-4th summit in London.
German chancellor Angela Merkel scolded Macron for his “drastic words” and said Nato remained a cornerstone of Germany security. But Macron did not say anything substantially different from past statements by Merkel and Trump.
A year ago, Merkel told the European Parliament, “The times when we could unconditionally rely on others are over”. Merkel supported Macron’s call for the establishment of a “true European army” so the EU could defend itself.
Trump complains that EU allies do not pay their fair share in Nato, and has called the 70-year-old organisation “obsolete”.
“After Nato won the cold war, it wasn’t disbanded, and that was probably an error,” says Jean-Dominique Giuliani, president of the Robert Schuman Foundation.
Though all, including Macron, agree Europe still needs Nato for its territorial defence, there is widespread recognition that the interests of the US and European pillars of the alliance have diverged.
The US pivoted to the Asia Pacific region during the Obama presidency. Obama’s refusal to retaliate for Bashar al-Assad’s use of chemical weapons in Syria “was already the first stage in the collapse of the Western bloc”, Macron said.
Françoise Grossetête, the EU Parliament’s rapporteur for the creation of a European Defence Fund (EDF) to subsidise research and development on weapons systems, said that having “lobbied shamelessly to prevent MEPs voting for the fund”, US companies “are doing everything they can to infiltrate the fund and benefit from it”.
Only EU-based companies can qualify for EDF funding. Prime minister Boris Johnson has asked that after Brexit, the UK continue to participate in both the EDF and the European Defence Agency, which helps defence ministries co-operate. The outgoing European Commission has requested €13 billion for the EDF in its next five-year budget.
In a 2017 speech at the Sorbonne, Macron launched a European Intervention Initiative. The group of 14 EU member states is headquartered at the French defence ministry, and is intended to “enhance the ability of its members to act together on missions as part of Nato, the EU, UN or other ad-hoc coalitions”.
France and Germany have begun work on a joint combat aircraft, slated for deployment in 2040, and a tank, to be ready in 2035.
“One may see the glass half empty, or half full, but the glass is filling up,” says Giuliani. He predicts a viable, integrated European defence in our lifetime.
Since 2003, EU member states have launched 33 civil and military missions outside their borders. But so far, the accumulation of EU agencies, committees and programmes do not add up to independent European defence.
France and the UK could not have intervened in Libya in 2011 and in Syria in 2018 without US support. Trump’s withdrawal of US forces from Syria made France’s inability to act on its own there painfully obvious.
Three French presidents have proposed extending France’s “nuclear umbrella” to the EU. No one has accepted. As Giuliani says, “We obviously cannot share the finger on the button.”
“We don’t want their protection,” says the ambassador for a northern European country. “Regardless of Trump, Nato is a combat-ready institution. There is no European defence system. Macron is asking us to trade a bird in the hand for two in the bush.”
The same ambassador accuses Macron of failing to consult allies – the accusation he levelled at the US and Turkey. “The French were furious when [German defence minister Annegret] Kramp-Karrenbauer proposed a security zone in northern Syria without consulting them. But does Macron ask his European partners if they want to cosy up to Putin, or disparage Nato? Never.”
European diplomats also fear that Macron’s lucid analysis of the dangers facing Europe may be undermined by the appearance of a French power grab.
Macron says the EU must “equip ourselves with the . . . grammar of power and sovereignty”. He often notes that after Brexit, France will be the EU’s only nuclear power, with the only permanent seat on the UN Security Council. France “is present overseas on every continent . . . We have unparalleled reach”, he told the Economist.
In her closing address to the conference on European defence, the former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga, who oversaw her country’s accession to the EU and Nato, said: “We are uncomfortable when we are told that France and Germany will ensure the defence of Europe. We have the impression the big countries will decide for the rest of us and we will have to follow. The French still have a lot of work to do to get their ideas accepted by their partners.”