For the last week, media was loud from rebuttals and angry outburst about the very latest interview given by President Macron, aboard the French Air Force One, en route to Guangzhou from Beijing, after his three-day state visit to Chinese President Xi Jinping. It was called “a declaration of political bankruptcy”, an “unrealistic blather” or a “dangerous signal”.
Nothing President Macron said was a real novelty.
The wording might have been different, but this wasn’t the first time the French president campaigned for “strategic autonomy” for Europe, neither was it the first occasion that he said that Europe should avoid getting dragged into conflicts that weren’t its own. Let it be about the U.S. and Russia or the U.S. and China. In fact, it fits perfectly into his (or most French presidents’) track record of expressing independence and criticising the U.S.
He didn’t say that Europe should turn its back to Washington or to kick NATO in the back. He didn’t say that the EU should suspend the aid it gives to Kyiv (that, by the way is much more than officially admitted, if one is to believe the Pentagon Leaks). He didn’t say that the EU should forget about the human rights violations of China or the threat against Taiwan.
He only said that Europe shouldn’t “overcome with panic” and shouldn’t “accelerate” crises. That the EU should strive for a level of autonomy that allows it to pursue its own diplomatic path and fight for its own interests.
The timing was definitely unfortunate, right in the moment when China launched an enormous naval exercise around Taiwan and only a few days after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen’s Central American tour.
His approach might seem more conciliatory that that of the U.S.
Or it is based on Realpolitik. Rational and calm calculations, instead of panicked reactions and verbal outburst. Even if it might not be great to hear it.
As President Macron put it, “European cannot resolve the crisis in Ukraine; how can we credibly say on Taiwan, ‘watch out, if you do something wrong we will be there?’.” A not so veiled hint to German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock’s remark on Taiwan, “a unilateral and violent change in the status quo would not be acceptable to us as Europeans”, and similar remarks made by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, even if her views clearly had more “China-sceptic” undertones.
As of now, Europe is heavily dependent on the U.S., let it be about energy or weapons supplies. Pursuing “strategic independence” or “autonomy” is not abandoning an ally, but gaining a position of more senior or equal-footed partnership. As French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire put it, “I don’t see any contradictions between our determination to be more independent on some strategic sectors and our cooperation with the U.S.”
Some, like Dan Baer, director of the Europe Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, dared to express their agreement, explaining that gaining a more equal footing is not “a threat to transatlantic unity”. Neither does it mean “getting too cozy” with-, or too dependent on Beijing, because it would mean just a different “unequal partnership”, one similar to which now President Putin founds himself.
But it shouldn’t mean complete abandonment of Europe’s own interests, like lucrative economic ties with Europe’s biggest trade partner. Like it happened in the case of Ukraine and is now, challenged by economic realities (like the plight of Polish grain producers that forced Warsaw to stop the import of Ukrainian agricultural products).
It should mean more and continued transatlantic coordination, more honestly and less pressure. It should mean accepting different views and interests and finding common ground.
Especially not as President Macron wasn’t the only European leader to pay a visit to Beijing. In the last few weeks, one president followed another prime minister, from Germany’s Olaf Scholz to Spain’s Pedro Sánchez. All hoping to prevent Beijing from increasing its support for Russia’s war against Ukraine or even to convince President Xi Jinping to use his leverage to achieve peace.
A feat that cannot be achieved by other means, only with visits, talking and (sorry to say), offering something in return for Beijing (like business).