Can Emmanuel Macron Make Europe Great Power?

In a mid-January speech addressing France’s next six-year defense strategy, President Emmanuel Macron unveiled ambitious plans to boost defense spending by more than a third. Taking into account current geopolitical circumstances and technological developments, President Macron now plans to assign 413 billion euros investment to the military for the 2024-2030 period. If enacted, that would evince a 118 billion euros hike, up from the 295 billion euros for the 2019-2025 cycle, which would indicate the fact that France’s defense spending would have doubled since Emmanuel Macron first took office in 2017.

In a speech opening the Munich Security conference, the French leader announced his support for the initiative of developing a collective air defense shield, offering to hold a conference in Paris to address Russia’s post-INF threat. At the same time, Macron encouraged European countries to increase military support for Kyiv against Russia’s invasion. In other words, at stake not only are there European peace and security but also Macron’s distinct vision of France’s role in a new global order. The key to grasping this grand vision where France – through the EU – should become a global power in its own right primarily lies in examining the following three tenets that Macron has used to put forward an ambitious European and foreign policy, which can more than ever be described as two sides of the same coin.

First, ever since starting his tenure, the French president has used a civilizational perspective to substantiate an idea that the EU needs to become stronger and France should play a central part to make this happen. In his foreign policy interviews and annual addresses to French ambassadors in the presidential Élysée Palace, Macron argued that global politics is currently experiencing a deep crisis of the Westphalian liberal order, which in turn led to the emergence of an illiberal and bipolar order in global politics. These phenomena, in Macron’s term, put the European civilization in jeopardy, which is premised on the principles of the Enlightenment, individual freedoms, market economy, democratic regime, and the progress of the middle class.

In the light of the growing influence of Washington and Beijing, Macron contended that world will be soon structured around the dominations of the US and China, where the European civilization will vanish since the principles the EU stands for are not any more represented by either great power. Blaming the US for not sharing the same humanism, he strongly uttered exasperation with US policies particularly on not striking Syria after the use of chemical weapons, dubious commitment to NATO, the aggressive one-sided trade policy and unfair economic competition, denouncing the Paris Climate Agreement, withdrawing from the Iran nuclear agreement, and pulling of the US troops from Afghanistan. Similarly, he has identified China as a different civilization that has neither the same collective preferences nor the same principles. However, he, like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, adopted a cautious approach toward Beijing, being afraid of losing access to the lucrative Chinese market where Paris has substantial export interests, including luxury goods and aircraft. These incompatibilities led Macron to propose comprehensive internal reforms so that the EU becomes stronger in order to champion both European values and liberal order.

Second, Macron vehemently called for a more Euro-focused defense policy, referred to as strategic autonomy, which would largely complete NATO that has heavy reliance on the US. With the exacerbation of security environment in Europe and a new reality of profound geopolitical shifts and great power competition between the US and China, Macron, true to French strategic thinking and Gaullist tradition, wanted the EU to become a strategically autonomous and sovereign power that has an ability to defend the continent and act militarily in its neighborhood without dependence on the US. To this end, he proposed such key ambitious projects as a European Intelligence Academy, a European Council for Internal Security, a common civil protection force, a border police force, and a treaty on defense and security.

Macron’s Euro-focused defense ambition is, to a certain extent, rooted in the assumption that a strong EU would promote Frances’s interests. As argued by the French president, a strong Europe would enable France to retain its status and prestige in a global order that has been gravely shaken up recently. More importantly, this defense project is largely linked to the French identity and strategic culture that France is more than a middle power. According to Macron, as a great economic and industrial power, member of the UN Security Council, nuclear power, and military and diplomatic power, France must be able to perform its role counterbalance when imbalances appear in global politics and must enable Europe to become the leader of the free world. Although the realization of the defense ambition Macron has planned to accomplish raises doubts to a large extent, it is still worthy to note that he has had success in setting the European Intervention Initiative, a European combat aircraft, a European force of civilian protection, and creating a 13 billion euros European Defense Fund.

Third, since very beginning of his presidency, Macron began making overtures to Moscow with the aim of relaunching the EU – Russia relationship. This widely controversial approach to Russia the French president pushed for was based on the assumption that as long as the EU is involved in a protracted security crisis with Russia, the chances of achieving even a small amount of strategic autonomy remain negligible. Therefore, he sought to address persistent insecurity over Moscow by integrating Russia into the European fold. Leveraging Russia’s natural resources and hard power, Paris wanted to exempt the EU from a pattern of uncertainty and constant reliance on the US security guarantees. This development would not only serve Europe’s interest but also Russia’s since the presence of the US and NATO forces has been impelling Russia to maintain its assertive military doctrine aggressive tone toward Europe. More importantly, the rapprochement with Russia would in turn forestall the potential alliance between China and Russia from taking shape in Eurasia.

More interestingly, Macron has used a civilizational perspective to conceptualize the relationship with Moscow. He has argued that the EU – Russia cooperation is crucial since the latter is also integral to the European civilization following De Gaulle’s expression in terms of the historical sense of Europe, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Ural Mountains. Moreover, a strong conviction that the essential prerequisites for defending the European civilization would not be met without has guided the French leader to call for rethinking the EU-Russia ties and revising EU strategies. However, Macron’s civilizational approach to Russia failsto account for Russia’s more authoritarian and conservative religious values, which has sparked protracted controversy. Worse than that, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has discredited Macron’s plan on Russia. Although he urged Western nations to increase military support for Ukraine, he did not shy away from pointing to Moscow-Kyiv peace talks as a final goal.

In all, Macron’s recent proposal on defense spending and support for an idea of developing a collective air defense shield are not the tactical reaction of Paris to maintain peace and security in Europe, amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but a continuation of distinctly French vision of Paris’s role in a new order, where France – through the EU – must become a global power like the US and China. To these ends, Macron has advocated for comprehensive reforms from a civilizational lens, the strategic autonomy and the reconsideration of the EU – Russia relations. While all seem plausible and achievable in theory, however, in practice Macron’s ambition deems too vague or illusionary. However, only the future will tell if Macron will become successful.

Alouddin Komilov
Alouddin Komilov
Alouddin Komilov is a research fellow at the Center for Progressive Reforms in Uzbekistan. Follow him on LinkedIn and X (formerly Twitter: @alouddinkomilov)