BERLIN – What should Europe’s position on Taiwan be? Emmanuel Macron, the French president, fresh from a state visit to China, where he met his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping, on 6 April, has started an international debate following one of his typically inflammatory interventions.
On board the French presidential plane returning from China on 8 April, Macron explained that he does not think Europe should get “caught up in crises that are not ours” regarding defending Taiwan against a possible attack by Beijing. Macron told Politico and two French media outlets: “The paradox would be that, overcome with panic, we believe we are just America’s followers… The question Europeans need to answer [is], is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the US agenda and a Chinese overreaction.” He reiterated his point in a speech on 11 April in the Netherlands, referencing his dream of a “sovereign Europe” that is able to “choose” its partners.
Taiwan, a self-governing democratic island off the coast of China, has been de facto independent of the mainland since 1949. Beijing views Taiwan as part of China and has vowed to “unify” it with the mainland, by force if necessary. The US is committed to helping Taiwan repel a Chinese invasion, though it maintains ambiguity over the extent to which American forces would become directly involved in a war for the island.
On the merits, Macron’s argument about Europe staying out of any escalation over Taiwan is wrong. Europe is no less vulnerable to the global economic crisis an invasion of Taiwan would provoke than the US. (An invasion would severly disrupt Taiwan’s semiconductor industry, critical to huge parts of the modern economy.) Nor is it in Europe’s interests to let dictatorships invade neighbouring democracies – an argument Macron has forcefully made to the rest of the world, including the US, since Russia attacked Ukraine in February last year.
But more than that, Macron – or any European leader – cannot credibly stand up to Washington on Taiwan as long as it is the US which underwrites Europe’s own security. The extent to which Europe is dependent on American security has been made painfully obvious by the war in Ukraine: it is the continent’s biggest security crisis in a generation and European aid to Ukraine is eclipsed by the US’s contribution. According to the Kiel Institute, a German think tank, US military aid is worth more than double the amount pledged by EU countries combined. That is despite the combined population of the 27 member states of the EU, plus the UK, measuring in at around 500 million, 160 million more than the US. Ukraine’s intelligence cooperation with the US is also almost certainly far more extensive than with other allies.
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Because it is US materiel and intelligence that ensure Ukraine’s continued defence, one of the biggest questions looming over the conflict is what would happen if an isolationist Republican candidate – perhaps the former president Donald Trump or the Florida governor Ron DeSantis – wins the American presidency next year. Both Trump and DeSantis have made it clear that they don’t intend to treat Ukraine’s defence as a vital US interest.
Credibly creating some distance between the US and European approaches to Taiwan, as Macron advocates, would require Europe to make difficult choices that it has chosen to avoid over the decades since the end of the Cold War. European countries would need to reverse their cuts to military spending (France is no exception here). The invasion of Ukraine has made that particular policy more palatable to European voters. Still, the difficulties of the German army in implementing the Zeitenwende declared by the chancellor, Olaf Scholz, indicate that European countries will have trouble reversing cuts quickly. A scathing report by the German parliament in March criticised Scholz’s government for spending “not a single euro or cent” of the €100bn he pledged to modernise his country’s military.
Nor is Europe close to being united enough to project what hard power it does possess. The EU is riven by divisions between member states in the north and east that favour a harder line on Russia and China, and more dovish nations in the bloc’s west. The government of one member state, Hungary, is overtly pro-Kremlin and has repeatedly weakened EU sanctions on Russia. Britain, one of the continent’s most important military powers, is outside the EU.
Macron’s long-held ambition of “strategic autonomy” for the EU would go some way to mitigating some of these problems, though not all of them. And even so, European strategic autonomy is at the moment nothing more than a distant ambition. Many member states continue to be wary of the concept, viewing it as little more than a pretext to weaken Europe’s alliance with the US. (Macron’s interview will have done little to assuage such concerns.)
Meanwhile, the Ukraine war is happening now and tensions around Taiwan threaten to become critical at any moment. As if to underscore the point, virtually the instant Macron took off from China, Chinese forces undertook military exercises simulating a blockade of Taiwan.
For as long as the defence of the European continent depends on American goodwill, Europe cannot credibly distance itself from the superpower across the Atlantic. The alternative is for Washington to leave Europe to manage its own security at precisely the moment that the continent is most reliant on American engagement.
[See also: Taiwan is already under attack]