MOSCOW, 19 Nov 2021, RUSSTRAT Institute.
Which of the European politicians of the first magnitude today will be able to assume leadership in the European Union? This issue remains the most relevant for the political establishment.
It would seem that after the Bundestag election and the predetermined departure of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the most likely candidate for the role of informal leader in the EU becomes the President of France. However, the image of Emmanuel Macron is not unambiguously positive in all countries of the community.
Angela Merkel has always been distinguished by her desire to find compromise solutions even in the most pressing issues of European politics. Yes, she didn’t always succeed, but one can’t deny her respect for a different point of view.
The French president, on the contrary, is known for his straightforwardness and penchant for outrageous political statements. His statement “about the brain death” of NATO is worth a lot by itself!
The European Community is not used to this style. Brussels has called for tough decisions many times, but somehow Merkel managed to smooth out the sharpest corners in European politics, to find compromises. Will Macron be able to maintain the existing balance of interests, or will his straightforwardness and penchant for harsh political rhetoric provoke new socio-economic conflicts?
A number of leading European states have concerns about this today. In this context, the reaction of Old Europe to the rupture of Australia’s military contract with France is indicative. Recall that the so-called crisis of confidence was caused by the fact that on September 15, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced the creation of a new security partnership – AUKUS. The agreement, in particular, involves the construction of at least eight nuclear submarines using American technology for the Australian Navy, as well as the re-equipment of the Australian armed forces with American cruise missiles. In this regard, Canberra has terminated the largest contract with Paris for the supply of submarines. In response, France accused the Australian authorities of deliberate deception and recalled its ambassadors to Australia and the United States.
To date, the situation has been partially normalised. However, in the wake of the conflict and, obviously, in contrast to AUKUS, it was Macron who called for more active contact with Russia and the speedy creation of an autonomous European rapid reaction force without the participation of the United States and NATO.
The reaction in the EU to the French initiative is indicative: most of the member states met it with cautious silence. As for Eastern Europe, they still consider the United States and NATO the most effective defence against the spread of Russian influence. One of the well-known Eastern European diplomats put it this way: “We could tell him how this policy towards Russia will turn out… The point here is not even that he is looking for contact with the Kremlin – Merkel also made such attempts, but in the way he does it!”
According to a number of sources, the United States may also become a stumbling block on Macron’s path to European leadership. Washington is well aware that the French president, unlike the liberal Merkel, will be much less accommodating on a number of issues.
The positions of the head of the French state in the upcoming presidential election in April 2022 also cannot be considered indisputable. Macron has strong rivals. The approval rating of the right-wing conservative writer and journalist Eric Zemmour, who straddled the anti-immigration and anti-Islamist agenda, has significantly increased. It is clear that Macron’s success in the pan-European field largely depends on his position in the election race.
In this sense, the French president will be able to record a meeting on the sidelines of the G20 in Rome with his American counterpart as an asset. At it, Joseph Biden called France a “very valuable partner” and even stressed that “America does not have a more long-standing and more loyal ally”. Of course, no one renegotiates the submarine contract, but this is a misunderstanding (Biden said so: “I thought France was aware”) will not prevent the United States from helping France in Africa and the Mediterranean. The main thing is that the joint communique states that the United States recognises “the importance of strengthening European defence initiatives” and considers them “compatible with NATO”. In Paris, they decoded it for the doubters: there is no contradiction between the European and Atlantic defence concepts. In general, the diplomatic crisis has been exhausted, the increase of the EU’s “strategic autonomy” has been discussed with the US and should not bother European partners.
It is also worth noting that, according to leaks from diplomatic circles, many in the EU began to listen to Macron’s ideas even before his meeting with Biden. Even countries that previously doubted Paris’ initiative to protect European companies from Asian or American competitors are changing their minds. The reason, the diplomats note on condition of anonymity, was the “aggressive protectionist policy of China and the United States”. In other words, Macron seemed somewhat radical, but many of his ideas, as it turns out, are quite reasonable. On the eve of the French presidency of the EU Council (it will begin on January 1, 2022), this change of vector is very indicative.
In any case, at this stage, the question of leadership in the EU after the departure of Angela Merkel remains open. The era is changing both for the European Union and for its “bearing axis” – France and Germany. In this situation, whether the French president will be able to propose a new project for the Old Europe in the global economic and political field largely depends both on the analysis of his own miscalculations and on building a more flexible strategy of cooperation. And of course, on the progress of the electoral campaign in France itself.
Elena Panina – Director of the RUSSTRAT Institute