International politics is experiencing what it has done several times in recent years. Emmanuel Macron says something, stirs up controversy, and his associates then shift gears and explain what the French president meant. The last time this happened was during his Easter visit to China.
A similar scenario took place already last year, when Emmanuel Macron said during the first debates about the possible end of the war in Ukraine that Russia should not be “humiliated” by such a situation. Earlier in 2019, against the background of Donald Trump’s comments about the redundancy of NATO, he called the alliance “brain dead” in an interview with The Economist. DG MEME’s satirical Twitter account dedicated to the European Union, for that well written: Should Macron stop giving interviews?
This time, Macron drew criticism for his comments on the “strategic autonomy” of Europe. On the plane back to France from his visit to China, he appealed in an interview to the newspaper Les Echos and the Politico website for the EU to build its ability to act independently of other world players. Otherwise, according to Macron, the Europeans are in danger of becoming “vassals” of the interests of Washington or Beijing.
In the case of Taiwan, which China considers its territory and threatens to attack it, the Europeans could be “drawn into crises that will not be ours”, the French president declared.
It was these two statements that caused the biggest wave of criticism. “Macron is doing it again. He is talking head-to-head in Beijing with zero credentials from the EU,” said Social Democratic member of the German Bundestag Metin Hakverdi, for example. “Absolutely shameful and wrong. Europe must withstand a completely different pressure and balance the power of China with the US,” commented the head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Chamber of Deputies, Marek Ženíšek (TOP 09).
Being a “vassal of the USA”
Eric Maurice, the director of the Brussels office of the leading French Robert Schuman Foundation think tank, told the newspaper Aktuálně.cz that “basically, Macron is asking the right questions”. “But the problem is how he says it. He puts it in a form that provokes a defensive reflex in allies and makes debate impossible.”
Maurice recalls that Europe’s independence from suppliers in energy, economy or defense is a topic that even skeptics took seriously after the Russian aggression towards Ukraine. In recent months, Brussels has proposed several steps to increase the EU’s self-sufficiency, including the long-prohibited resumption of mining of precious metals, which until now are imported from Asia.
“However, Macron formulates Europe’s strategic autonomy as something anti-American,” notes Éric Maurice. “At the same time, the EU’s independent action can be just as well alongside the US as without it. And then Macron is not right that no one wants to be a vassal of the US. The Poles, the Baltics, you Czechs, want to be one.”
The very term “vassal of America” refers to a political scientist as a “traditional phrase” existing in French politics for decades. “The will to act independently is always present in the debate. But in practice, France behaves like an ally,” Maurice mentions.
According to him, Paris relies on the US to maintain a safe world and cooperates loyally with Washington on the ground. “We needed American intelligence in Libya, we needed it in Mali. Macron knows that over 90 percent of arms supplies to Ukraine are provided by the Americans,” he says.
Sweep over Macron
In the same logic, Éric Maurice therefore considers Macron’s comment on Taiwan “incomprehensible”. “The president says that a possible attack by China on the island will not be our problem. That is not true. It is not the position of Europe and it is not the French policy towards the Indo-Pacific. France is the only EU country with a military presence in the area. For years it has been trying to convince the rest of the Union that this the area is important. And it has a history of supplying arms to Taiwan,” he reminds.
The French analyst also states that he does not understand what Emmanuel Macron’s trip to China was for. “Xi didn’t make Beijing put more pressure on Russia. He pissed off the allies. The head of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, whom he took with him, spoke differently to China, tougher. So it wasn’t even a demonstration of EU unity. And the timing of his comments on Tai -wan at the time of massive Chinese maneuvers in the strait was simply terrible.
“I interpret it so that Macron used his usual method – to provoke. Being a big disruptor is something very Macronian. He couldn’t resist it again,” adds the political scientist.
In response to Macron’s words, French Minister Bruno Le Maire assured on Tuesday that Paris “of course remains an ally of the US”. The president himself did not return to the criticized theses during a speech at the university in the Netherlands early Tuesday evening and only developed the need for Europe to invest in its own sources of energy and clean technologies.
On Wednesday, the head of the EU’s common foreign policy, Josep Borrell, is leaving for China for a long-planned visit after the easing of covid restrictions. A few hours later, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock will set off in the same direction. The German weekly Der Spiegel wrote about her trip to the region that she is going to “sweep” after Macron.
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