A Western Misunderstanding of Macron’s EU Strategic Autonomy

A Western Misunderstanding of Macron’s EU Strategic Autonomy

Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖
“The great risk” Europe faces is getting “caught up in crises that are not ours,” says Macron via POLITICO

On April 9th French newspaper Les Echos and political news website POLITICO both published an interview with French President Emmanuel Macron on his presidential plane as he flew from Beijing to Guangzhou during his visit to China. In this interview, Macron declared that “accelerating evolution on the Taiwan issue” is not in Europe’s interest. He warned that Europe should not become a “follower” of the “US rhythm” and “China’s overreaction” on the Taiwan issue, but instead argued that Europe must have its own strategy, whether in Ukraine, relations with China and sanctions, and reiterated that Europe should ensure its own economic resources and should not rely on the “extraterritorial power of the US dollar.”

Saddled with the “Gaullism” that advocates Europe’s independence from the United States, Macron put forward the idea of European strategic autonomy in a speech at Sorbonne University in 2017. After the shocks of Trump’s rise to power, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the Russo-Ukrainian war, Macron believes the time is ripe for such a strategic approach on the continent. In the face of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war and the threat of protectionism in the United States, represented by the Inflation Reduction Act, Macron believes that the next step in accelerating European autonomy will be to accelerate the implementation of Europe’s military, technological, energy and financial plans.

The conversation between Macron and Xi repeatedly revealed a consensus between the two leaders in their quest for a multipolar world after the era of US hegemony. To break away from dependence on the United States, Macron sees Europe first unifying its patchwork of national defence standards and building up its own defence industry and second accelerating the development of nuclear and renewable energy in Europe so that it does not have to rely on fossil fuel supplies from other countries. In international politics, Europe should also remove the “camp confrontation logic”, implement “de-risk”, not rely on others, and maintain as strong an integration of its own value chain as possible. And finally, of course, reducing reliance on the US dollar.

Controversy over Macron’s EU strategic autonomy

However, Macron’s speech on the EU’s strategic autonomy is controversial inside the EU and the West in general. After the interview was published, a number of Twitter users retweeted a parody of the word Macroning, explaining that it meant “deliberately increasing dependence on China whilst lecturing European partners about naïvety and the need to boost the EU’s strategic autonomy.” Sari Arho Havren, an adviser at the Finnish embassy in Belgium, criticized Macron’s speech as unfortunate. “Macron had no mandate to speak on behalf of the whole EU, and EU doesn’t ‘need China more than ever,’ it’s France (and GER) who do not represent the rest of Europe.”

US Senator Marco Rubio tweeted that “after his 6-hour meeting in China he told reporters that Europe should create distance with the US & should not get involved in supporting America over China when it comes to Taiwan.” Rubio stressed that if Macron represents Europe and believes it should not choose sides between the United States and China on the Taiwan issue, the United States can leave Europe to deal with Russia alone. He went on to pointed to Beijing’s support for Macron’s remarks and asked France or Europe to respond as soon as possible.

However, even Germany disagrees with Macron’s speech. Speaking at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on May 9, German Chancellor Angela Scholz called for more global cooperation on equal terms rather than striving to turn the EU into a third pole alongside the United States and China. “Those who still yearn for the dream of European power, who serve the illusion of power, are stuck in the past,” he said. Europe should “abandon the Eurocentric view of the past few decades.”

Macron’s government has had to adjust its rhetoric in the face of an onslaught from Western media and politicians. French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told reporters on the sidelines of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank spring meetings that France and Europe wanted to pursue a policy course independent of the United States and China but intended to be a “strong and reliable ally of the United States.” He stressed that Paris and Washington had coordinated their positions on China ahead of Macron’s visit.

As Le Maire said, many misinterpretate Macron’s idea about the strategic autonomy of the EU. When he discusses strategic autonomy, he is not just talking about its’ autonomy towards the US but also its autonomy towards China as well. For China, the idea of European strategic autonomy means that Europe will not blindly follow US policy and join its Allies in suppressing China. From this perspective, European autonomy is a pursuit that deserves China’s support in word and deed. But from another point of view, an autonomous Europe does not mean the continent will not adopt unfavourable policies to China and its own interests.

The EU as a Balancer between the U.S. and China?

Leaving aside the European Parliament’s often negative political statements on China’s various human rights conditions, Macron can also be regarded as a European “anti-China pioneer” in terms of substantive policy. As China’s auto exports have just overtaken Japan to become the largest exporter, its new energy vehicle exports increased by 90% in the first quarter compared with last year. Europe, which has been the auto industry leader, immediately felt uneasy, and began to worry that China’s role in the era of new energy vehicles will threaten the European auto industry in other markets around the world, and even the European market itself.

In a speech in May, Macron said: We cannot repeat the mistakes of solar panels in the electric vehicle market– we have created here a dependence on Chinese industry, allowing (Chinese) manufacturers to flourish. In terms of international trade, Macron’s “European strategic autonomy” is not much different from the protectionism of the Biden administration’s chip bill and climate bill, and it is also about national security and geopolitics trumping pure economic logic and using industrial policy to protect or rebuild its own specific industries.

The widespread misunderstanding of Macron’s position on EU strategic autonomy is precisely because this idea of strategic autonomy wants to counter the popularity of the “American-Sino bipolar mentality.” A mindset that was on display during Macron’s visit to China with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. Both are leading advocates of EU strategic autonomy.

On the issue of Taiwan, if we examine Macron’s remarks, he does not mean that the Taiwan issue itself does not involve Europe’s interests, but that the “accelerated evolution of the Taiwan issue” promoted by the US, such as Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan and McCarthy’s meeting with Tsai Ing-wen, does not serve EU’s interest. He does not mean that if there is a crisis in the Taiwan Strait, it will be a crisis that does not belong to Europe, but that the strategic deployment of whether the EU should intervene and how to intervene should not be dominated by the will of the US or China, and the EU should not be passively involved in the crisis.

Suggested Readings:

Emmanuel Macron, Sorbonne speech of Emmanuel Macron – Full text / English version, September 26th, 2017

Jamil Anderlini and Clea Caulcutt, Macron incite les Européens à ne pas se penser en “suiveurs” des Etats-Unis, April 9th, 2023

Ivana Stradner and Olga Lautman, Old Europe Has Failed Ukraine so Thank You UK for Standing up to Putin, February 14th, 2022

Suggested Questions:

  1. Do you think the criticism from the West towards Macron’s vision of EU strategic autonomy is correct or influenced by English media’s misinformation?
  2. Is there a consensus within Europe on EU strategic autonomy, and if so what? If not should it be achieved? How to achieve it?
  3. Should Europe become a third pole outside of China and the United States?

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A Western Misunderstandin…

by Severus Xisheng Wang 王希聖 time to read: 5 min