With France in leader’s chair, will EU go its own way?

Macron is especially committed to showing that he can deliver on technological sovereignty for the EU. That includes being tough on Big Tech as well as competing globally with the US and China in fields ranging from semiconductors to artificial intelligence.

By Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli

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Published: Sun 30 Jan 2022, 7:56 PM

In a raucous session before the EU Parliament recently, French President Emmanuel Macron outlined France’s agenda as European Council President for the first six months of this year as he again asserted that Europe should blaze its own geopolitical path.

Coming amid his reelection bid to lead his own country, some saw Macron’s comments as pure politicking, but the remarks also came at a sensitive time of rising tensions between Russia and Ukraine — and the response from EU ally the United States.

With the coronavirus pandemic and efforts in recovery disrupting business as usual, possibly creating space for a reset, is the time right for Europe to go its own way in international relations, economic development and strategic planning?

France’s presidency of the council could likely be shaped by the management of external crises and potential resulting structural changes in Europe’s defense approach. Depending on how events evolve, Macron’s ambitions for the EU could come to fruition, or at least come closer to France's push for greater importance on the world stage.

In addition to the ongoing global pandemic, other external variables include an increasingly assertive Russia and China along with uncertain US policies. It could be an opportunity to turn external shocks into stronger insistence that European sovereignty is not a choice but a necessity in the face of an increasingly competitive world.

Hoping to capitalise on the post-coronavirus recovery to also promote greater fiscal uniformity and economic policies among EU member states, Macron wants to further power European prosperity through innovation and technology. Also crucial to the European agenda is protecting the environment and battling climate change.

The coronavirus crisis has rendered the notion of European global leadership more tangible to voters and decision-makers as Europe moves to further develop its already robust scientific capacity. Macron’s vision of a greater EU includes the ability to anticipate future crises, plan responses and avoid being caught unprepared or too slow in responding. The EU economic recovery plan, in which France played a pivotal role, embraces that ambition in several important ways: in citizens’ health and medicines as well as European supply chains and the digital economy.

Macron is especially committed to showing that he can deliver on technological sovereignty for the EU. That includes being tough on Big Tech as well as competing globally with the US and China in fields ranging from semiconductors to artificial intelligence.

Autonomy, or strategic independence, has long been a French concern as demonstrated when President Charles de Gaulle famously pulled the country out of Nato in 1966. It rejoined as a full member of the alliance decades later, but Macron’s continued push for autonomy from US policy shows the independent streak remains strong and popular with voters.

Determined to lead a European solution to the current crisis, Macron hosted Russian and Ukrainian officials on Wednesday. Including Germany in a renewal of four-way talks known as the Normandy Format, the meeting shows France’s approach of “a path to de-escalation”, said an aide to Macron.

Yet central to his effort for a more muscular EU is Germany, the bloc’s economic powerhouse. Now with new leadership, Germany itself poses a question mark. Some have termed the country’s new three-party governing partners the “traffic-light” coalition due to the Greens and two other political hues.

They are visibly split on Russia, making for a public display of German disunity that could trouble allies. When Russia before caused concern in 2014, then Chancellor Angela Merkel was able to marshal the 28 members of the pre-Brexit EU to impose sanctions. The Normandy Format of those days had some clout in placing Europe at the negotiating table.

The pandemic has forced revitalized cooperation among EU member states, emboldening the optimists who say the bloc can do better. A joint statement late last year by the French and German ministers of foreign affairs reaffirmed that hope.

“European sovereignty has grown over the years,” said the statement. “We Europeans are no longer only asking ourselves what America can do for us, but what we should do to enhance our own security and build a more balanced transatlantic partnership. These are two sides of the same coin“.

France is keen to see those developments become a new chapter in European affairs as a more autonomous EU truly competes with other great powers.

But for Macron to be a leader doing that, he will first have to be returned to office in upcoming spring elections. Polls say he would get just under a quarter of the vote if the election were held today, though he has widened the margin over his main opponent Marine Le Pen.

And he has surprised many before, shaking up the political scene in 2017 when he ran without the backing of a major party and won. His then-new centrist République en Marche party went on to win that year's parliamentary elections as well. A former economy minister under the socialist President François Hollande, Macron appears to have become more conservative politically while in office.

And whatever his growth or political stripe, in the classic French tradition he envisions a grand role for the Gallic nation.

Jon Van Housen and Mariella Radaelli are international veteran journalists based in Milan

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