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French President Emmanuel Macron has accumulated quite a habit of causing political and diplomatic turbulence. His comments in 2019 proclaiming the “brain death” of NATO drew heavy and immediate criticism from both sides of the Atlantic (DW). In 2022, he was again denounced for his remarks claiming that Russia should be offered “security guarantees” and ought not to be “humiliated” following its brutal invasion of Ukraine (Guardian). Now, he is under heavy fire once more for comments he made in an interview on his returning flight from a three-day state visit to China. Reiterating his desire for European “strategic autonomy” to become a third global superpower on equal footing with the United States and China, he asserted that “the great risk” faced by Europe is getting “caught up in crises that are not ours”, namely the brewing conflict between China and Taiwan, and that the EU must not become an American “vassal” (POLITICO).
The backlash to Macron’s newest remarks was swift and severe. US Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) posted a video on Twitter questioning whether Macron spoke “for all of Europe”, and threatened that, if Europe didn’t “pick sides between the U.S. and China over Taiwan, then maybe [the U.S.] shouldn't be picking sides either [on Ukraine]” and should reconsider its wide-ranging defense support to Europe (Twitter). Norbert Röttgen, the chair of the German parliament’s foreign relations committee, argued that Macron was “increasingly isolating himself in Europe” and had “managed to turn his China trip into a PR coup for Xi and a foreign policy disaster for Europe” (POLITICO). The Wall Street Journal warned Macron of encouraging US politicians who advocate for reducing American commitments to Europe, writing that “President Biden … ought to call Mr. Macron and ask if he’s trying to re-elect Donald Trump” (WSJ).
It is undeniable that Macron’s remarks were diplomatically inappropriate, coming at a time when authoritarian regimes like China are increasingly challenging the Western, rules-based world order, and attempting to unravel America’s alliances to set up a new international order with China at its center. The optics of the French President, traditionally one of the United States’ closest allies, returning from a pompous state visit to China with the conclusion that Europe should decouple itself from America’s foreign policy in the Indo-Pacific, are certainly problematic. By choosing to criticize the United States rather than denouncing Chinese human rights violations or their belligerent military exercises in the Taiwan Strait, Macron only further emboldened an increasingly confrontational Xi Jinping and divided the West. As The Guardian put it, “Xi must surely rub his hands with glee” (Guardian).
Macron’s comments ultimately also raised an uncomfortable question for European leaders: when would they begin to devise a common strategic plan regarding Beijing? With Macron and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz attempting to extract economic benefits from independent, diplomatic relations with China, the EU is beginning to become divided, especially with European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen appearing more eager to draw a line in the sand and stand against Xi’s autocratic pursuit of empire. This divide will ultimately only weaken the EU, leading to uncoordinated and ineffective China policy among member states. Wolfgang Ischinger, the veteran German diplomat and former chairman of the Munich Security Conference, accurately described this “lack of a clear and concise China strategy” as a “historic low point [regarding] EU foreign and security policy” (Twitter). Eastern European countries, for instance, increasingly concerned with the blatant disregard for territorial sovereignty on Russia’s part, will find themselves turning to Washington, rather than Paris or Berlin, for steady support and guidance.
The French President’s intention for European autonomy from America seems especially baffling when considering his hesitancy to provide support for Ukraine in its effort to maintain its territorial integrity and resist Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked invasion. While the U.S. has provided over €71 billion in total bilateral aid, France’s commitments of €1.7 billion (excluding EU funds) pale in comparison to other European powers, including Germany (€7.4B), the United Kingdom (€9.8B), and even the Netherlands (€3.9B) (ifw). If Macron is indeed intent on reshaping the EU into a global superpower, he ought to resist the temptation to cede leadership responsibilities by having the U.S. define the course of a European war and turn his desire for independent EU leadership into action.
The task for Europe now ultimately lies in conducting a diplomatic course correction and formulating a comprehensive and coherent China strategy to prevent disarray among member states and allies looking elsewhere for leadership. Instead of alienating the United States as a partner, Mr. Macron should clarify that Europe will not stand idly by as China blatantly disregards human rights and threatens the territorial integrity of sovereign nations. Further, rather than sowing European disunity and distrust, he should consult with Chancellor Scholz, President von der Leyen, and other EU leaders to present a united front and conduct more effective, coordinated pan-European foreign policy. If not, it is only a matter of time before the United States and others will come to question how dependable a fractured Europe can really be.