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12 June 2021updated 20 Aug 2021 9:51am

Why tensions remain between Joe Biden and Emmanuel Macron, despite their warm body language

What recent comments by the French president reveal about the future of the transatlantic relationship. 

By Ido Vock

As usual for such a gathering, the ongoing G7 summit in Cornwall mostly takes place behind closed doors, away from the cameras. So it can be tempting for commentators to extrapolate observations from the optics of leaders’ photo calls and walkabouts. Yesterday, at both the official welcome at the beach in Carbis Bay in Cornwall and a drinks reception including the British royals at the Eden Project eco-park, many were struck by the warm body language between Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden. 

Photographed and filmed with their arms around each other’s backs and deep in conversation, the two presidents’ body language seemed to invite speculation that with the relationship with Britain complicated by Brexit (Biden has used the G7 to urge a resolution in the row over Northern Ireland) and with Angela Merkel soon set to leave the stage, the new buckle of the transatlantic relationship is the Washington-Paris alliance. 

And yet appearances can be deceptive. A White House spokesperson is quoted as saying that the two discussed “Covid-19 and counterterrorism efforts in the Sahel” yesterday; they also hold a formal meeting today. But a hint at the broader agenda of Biden’s and Macron’s apparently chummy discussions can be found in a press conference that the French president gave in Paris on Thursday 10 June, before he travelled to the UK. It is well worth looking more closely at the comments he delivered then as context for the encounters in Cornwall this weekend.

While much of Macron’s broad-ranging address on what he termed “effective multilateralism” involved praising the return of a US administration committed to the international order, its allies and the fight against climate change, he also warned that tensions exposed by Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, would not disappear.

The core of his argument was that France and the EU would need to assume greater independence from the US. And although Macron welcomed the return of the US to the Paris Climate Accord, he also said that while Europeans had “historically delegated accounting standards to the Anglo-Saxon world”, they now needed to take responsibility for the creation of “moral standards for our capitalism, be they environmental or social”.

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Here, Macron hinted at a line of reasoning he has long proclaimed: that Europe’s economic and political model, distinct from both American free-marketism and Chinese authoritarian capitalism, should be the basis of a foreign-policy push by the EU to reshape the international order. His quasi-Gaullist reference to “Anglo-Saxons” suggests a civilisational difference between not only the EU and US but also the EU and UK.

That argument was extended in a section about the governance of the internet. Speaking of his desire to avoid a “fragmentation of the global internet”, Macron spoke of avoiding a situation where Europe sees “de facto regulations will be imposed on us which are structured around Chinese preferences on the one hand, and American preferences on the other”. This sentence again hints at his conviction that the EU must not merely pick one camp or the other, but become an international actor in its own right.

Most starkly, ahead of a Nato summit due to be held next week, Macron warned the US administration that the EU needs to be permitted its “independence when it comes to our strategy with regard to China”. Macron’s suggestion that the EU cannot be expected to automatically side with America to a degree undermines Biden’s ambitions to rally democracies to counter the rise of China. Indeed, he pleaded against the “return to [the logic] of the Cold War”, adding that “Europe is not simply an object or a territory for the distribution of influences. We are a subject of international geopolitics and we need to assert ourselves as such.”

There are, of course, many reasons to be sceptical about the address. Macron is fond of grand civilisational pronouncements about the uniqueness of Europe which do not always translate into concrete policy changes. Of all the G7 member states, he leads the one most able to assert its independence from the US, being both a nuclear power in its own right (like the UK) and confident in its ability to diverge from the US (unlike the UK).

Other G7 member states such as Germany and Japan would hesitate to be so forthright about asserting that their alliance with the US can no longer be taken for granted, let alone several members of the EU. Countries such as Poland and the Baltic states do not see any alternative to the transatlantic alliance to guarantee their sovereignty and are likely to take a dim view of Macron’s pronouncements. The EU developing the “strategic autonomy” from the US Macron has long argued for would require overcoming the deep divisions on foreign policy among member states, which also include a handful viewed as pro-China and pro-Russia.

Still, Macron’s speech is useful for gauging the feeling about the future of the transatlantic relationship after Trump. His call for the EU to build a “new partnership” with the US implies clear alignment but also, as Jeremy Cliffe argued earlier this week, distance on some issues. He said the new relationship should be “a partnership of values, an alliance on some subjects, but a clear-sighted partnership where we say that it is up to us to handle our neighbourhood”.

In other words, Macron believes that Europeans have matured enough to have stopped believing that they can simply return to the same close alignment with America, even though both blocs once again share many of the same values, including commitments to liberal democracy, the international order and the fight against climate change. “The same household, but separate rooms,” as the newspaper Le Monde puts it in a write-up of the speech.

The G7 summit is Macron’s first in-person meeting with Biden since the latter became president. It may well be that the two do indeed get on well personally. But commentators should beware of assuming that, just because they do, their two countries’ foreign policies are necessarily converging. To judge by Macron’s comments in Paris on Thursday, they may well be set to do the opposite. 

[See also: Europe and America are diverging, but that does not mean the end of the transatlantic alliance]

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