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Europe enters a brave new world

The war in Ukraine has marked a turning point for the EU, and Emmanuel Macron is leading the way.

By Mujtaba Rahman

By invading Ukraine, Vladimir Putin has solidified the Atlantic alliance, narrowed rifts between the US and its European partners and opened the way to possible Nato membership for Finland and Sweden. He has also woken a sleeping strategic giant – the European Union – which may emerge in the years ahead as both a partner and a rival to Nato in countering the anti-Western, anti-democratic ambitions of not just Moscow but also Beijing. 

The key player will be Emmanuel Macron. The French president has long argued that Europe must seize control of its own destiny and become equal partners with Washington – and an independent actor – in shaping decisions on the economy, foreign policy, defence and, crucially, Europe’s own defence industries. 

French officials have been both delighted and taken aback by the pace of change in Brussels and Berlin in recent weeks. Macron’s view – that Europe needs a political brain to go with its economic muscle, that it has to start thinking about how to shape its own strategic future – no longer seems an outlandish idea.  

These same officials accept that Europe and the world is entering a long and profound crisis. It may be too early, they say, to draw firm conclusions from some of the developments of recent days. No one would have forecast a month ago that the EU, as an institution, would provide €450m (£374m) to fund lethal weapons supplies to Kyiv.  

At some point, however, the EU will have to take stock and adjust its policies and institutions to this new reality – especially how it manages foreign, security, defence and fiscal policy. It is not too soon to start thinking about these new policy outcomes or how to finance them; indeed, some of the advances of recent days will have to be codified more clearly in EU law and EU institutional capacity in the coming months.  

President Macron will begin this process this week, at a special summit of EU leaders that he has called in Versailles on 10 and 11 March. The choice of Versailles as a setting is significant, and one many might consider ironic. Many historians blame the flawed post-First World War peace settlement negotiated at Versailles in 1919 for creating the resentments that led to the Second World War two decades later. 

In a national TV address on the Ukraine war on 2 March, Macron said that he would ask EU leaders to “take a new step towards our European defence”. In a 14-minute speech, in which he repeatedly referred to the EU as “our Europe”, Macron said the Covid crisis and the Ukraine war had taught Europeans a lesson in self-protection and self-sufficiency. “We can no longer rely on others to feed us, to provide the material we need to take care of our health, to inform us or to finance us,” he said. “We need to promote a new economic model rooted in independence and progress.” The Versailles summit would have to be the time to “make decisions on all these subjects”.   

With these words in mind, Macron’s key pitch in Versailles will be for common EU borrowing, directed to member states as fiscal transfers, to facilitate investments in energy independence from Russia, as well as a stronger EU defence capability. France is hoping to build on the success of Europe’s economic response to Covid, where grants from Brussels via a new €750bn Covid Recovery Fund allowed member states with high fiscal deficit and debt levels to better address the fallout of the pandemic. This solidarity was key in sponsoring internal cohesion through the health crisis.

A similar logic applies today: some countries, such as Poland, are facing an influx of refugees; others are more dependent upon Russian oil and gas and will be disproportionately affected by sanctions or medium-term energy decoupling. Rather than leave member states to stand alone and confront a crisis not of their own making, France would like to leverage the power of Europe’s economy to help countries deal with the consequences of war, while building a stronger, more autonomous Europe for the future in the process.  

Macron will be met with enthusiasm from some of his partners but with pushback from others – especially on defence. The Ukraine crisis has, in a sense, had two potentially contradictory long-term effects. It has emboldened EU institutions and EU governments to think strategically. But it has also reminded many of those same governments about the importance of Nato and the continuing US military guarantee to Europe. 

France argues, somewhat disingenuously, that the two are not contradictory. Washington, it says, has long wanted Europe to take on more of the responsibility for its own defence. In truth, once the Ukraine crisis is over, the contradictions will become apparent once again. Will more European military spending help to strengthen European defence industries, in competition with US ones? Will a more strategically conscious EU always have shared geopolitical goals with the US? 

The overnight transformation of the new German chancellor, Olaf Scholz, into a statesman capable of jettisoning his country and his own party’s long-held approaches to Russia and to German military power provides Macron with a potential new partner for his vision of a “strategic Europe”. Scholz, however, will be his own man. Senior French officials welcomed Berlin’s new mission. But having already made a huge change in postwar German thinking on defence, Berlin may be more reluctant than France to push ahead with EU defence structures that could implicitly call into question the Western alliance and US commitment to it. 

Germany is also opposing more EU-wide borrowing. Scholz first wants to get his public comfortable with the extraordinary spending pledges he has made at home – €100bn (£83.2bn) in defence expenditures for this year and €200bn (£166.7bn) on climate strategy until 2026 – before agreeing to do more in Europe.   

The reluctance is perhaps understandable. Berlin agreed to the original €750bn Covid Recovery Fund as a one-off. A second fund, to deal with the implications of Russia’s war of aggression in Ukraine, would be tantamount to a structural shift within the EU over its use of fiscal policy to deal with crises. It could also have implications for the relative balance of power between Germany and France within the EU – as the move towards a more geopolitical EU with common borrowing to support it reinforces Paris’s political and geopolitical reading of the world.  

So, while France has been vindicated, if you like, many problems will now arise. Some EU governments will see the Ukraine war as a reason to cling to the US. While France also believes that US commitment to Europe is vital and that has been proved once again, it also believes that the crisis has shown that Europe must start thinking about long-term policies to protect itself, economically and militarily.  In Versailles, Macron will make his pitch. But the EU, born from a determination to prevent further European “civil wars”, has already taken its first decisive steps towards becoming a strategic and military power in response to the war in Ukraine.

[See also: Who will win the French presidential election?]

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