The UK’s exit from the EU has become a strategic opportunity for the French elite to push their own vision of European integration. Another call for the political offensive is the weakness of Germany, which is currently facing problems in its own backyard. Further difficulties, including the growing divergence between Paris and Berlin and resistance from some other EU Member States, seem to even inspire Emmanuel Macron to take increasingly unconventional action. All of this provokes fundamental questions. Will the French plans for EU recalibration succeed, and will they be good for Europe?
Method à la Trump
Macron’s method fully resembles that of Donald Trump. It involves taking unilateral actions, not reckoning with allies, breaking procedures and customs, and finally putting the interests of his own country first. Macron is trying to provoke change in the EU, but his unconventional actions, instead of healing the EU, could cause even more trouble.
Macron routinely refers to European interests. He often mentions the need to build “European sovereignty”. In practice, however, there are often particular French interests behind these popular ideas. During the French President’s visit to Shanghai in 2019, he repeatedly mentioned European interests – for example – in a conversation with President Xi Jinping, an agreement between the EU and the PRC on the protection of trademarks for about one hundred European food products was being finalized. Of these, French goods accounted for the largest part. Many commentators pointed out that the French President had no formal mandate to represent the EU in these talks. Macron also settled with the Chinese leader that the EU Aviation Safety Agency and the Chinese administration would agree to grant the relevant certificates to allow the Italian-French company ATR to export aircraft to the Chinese market. Not only does this violate the procedures of the EU, but it shows Macron’s growing ambition to control the EU administration. Furthermore, the new European Commission is seen as a success for Paris. Many experts have concluded that this will strengthen this capital’s influence on bureaucrats in Brussels. However, the visit to Shanghai proves that it is not enough for the French President to lead the EU from the back seat, and that he is now ready to take the wheel.
There are many other examples of how the French policy-makers approach European institutions. The latter constitute now, in a way, an extension of French foreign policy, especially when they, or their representatives, defend the interests of this country in external relations. In 2019, the French Parliament passed legislation imposing a 3% tax on the revenues of large tech companies such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple in France. In response, the US threatened to hit back with punitive duties imposed on certain French goods imported into the US. In the face of the Franco-American trade dispute, Paris decided to involve the EU institutions in the protection of its interests. Bruno Le Maire, the Finance Minister of France, has threatened that retaliatory EU sanctions would be imposed if the Americans do not withdraw from their plans to impose punitive duties on France. Indeed, Le Maire considered that the attack on France was an attack on the entire EU, even though imposing the French tax on US internet companies was a unilateral action by Paris and not an agreed policy within the entire EU. In this way, he ignored not only EU procedures but also the different approach of many European countries both to tax policy and to transatlantic relations.
In the summer of 2019, Macron stated during a meeting with Vladimir Putin that the EU should overcome “misunderstandings” with Russia, which is after all “deeply European“, and seek a new order from Lisbon to Vladivostok. This has raised the question in many capitals: who gave this Frenchman the mandate to negotiate a new strategic architecture in Europe? Even more confusion was caused by his interview, in which he said that NATO was experiencing “brain death“. He also questioned whether the allied obligations of NATO were still valid. Among those outraged at these statements were German politicians, and Angela Merkel herself distanced herself off from these statements. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, her protégé to the Chancellor’s seat, said that this was a manifestation of French aspirations for strategic autonomy from the US and an attempt to replace NATO with the EU’s defense policy. Another factor is Macron’s unilateral decisions that block consensus within all countries. An example is that he blocked the start of EU accession negotiations with Northern Macedonia and Albania.
The Macron method is based on self-attributing pro-European intentions and denying them to his opponents. At the same time, it relies on isolating them. In the case of Poland, which in many instances has a different approach to European integration, accusations are made of authoritarian governance and violations of the rule of law. In addition, Macron is weakening the cohesion of Central Europe by trying to get some of the countries in the region to support his policies – wherever possible. This was the case during his tour in 2017 when he promoted the directive concerning the posting of workers. It was then that Poland – the biggest opponent of the directive – was purposely avoided.
Until now, the Franco-German alliance has been the “engine” for progress in European integration. It succeeded in implementing many initiatives that were not always approved by the other members of the Community, but the political power of the two largest Member States was, sooner or later, overcoming the resistance of those dissatisfied. This way of functioning of EU integration has become one of the reasons why the British elites decided to leave the EU. It was difficult for the British to accept a situation in which, despite their political potential, they could not steamroll their own preferences in European politics, and, what is worse, they were often forced to accept Franco-German solutions.
Interestingly, in recent years the Franco-German “motor” has clearly failed and more and more disputes appear between French and German visions of the future of the EU. This, in effect, makes Macron reach for unconventional ways of acting and, more and more often, surprise the Germans when he was trying to unilaterally shape the European agenda. In this way, French President tries to force his partners to approve of his own political directions. In 2019, this was the case, amongst others, with the negotiations on the conditions for the UK’s exit from the EU, trade policy towards the US, the issue of further EU enlargement to the countries of the Western Balkans, and geopolitical rapprochement with Russia. It seems that Paris is seeking to end the economic domination of Berlin, which has increasingly translated into German political influence in Europe. This was particularly the case during the Eurozone crisis when Germany’s economic and financial power translated into having the greatest influence in deciding on how to solve the crisis. France is, therefore, trying to rebuild its geopolitical position in regard to Germany through a diplomatic offensive, which includes a whole series of ideas on how to heal the EU and trying to dominate the European agenda at the geopolitical and geo-economic level. This is why German politicians suspect that Macron is seeking to replace the German economic leadership with the French one in foreign and security policy.
The mentioned objectives of the French President are best reflected in his numerous activities in the field of international politics. This is linked to a strategic change that he would like to apply to Europe. The aim is to move the EU away from the US, and at the same time shift it closer to Moscow. The condition for this fundamental change is the arrangement of relations between Ukraine and Russia. While peace on the EU’s Eastern Flank is desirable, it will probably be happening largely on Putin’s terms. Regionalization of Ukraine and elections in the eastern part of the country were considered. This would not only sanction Russian influence in Donbas but would probably give Putin a veto on Ukraine’s European or transatlantic ambitions. In such an arrangement, Russia’s annexation of Crimea might also be silently accepted.
What is significant in this situation is the recent statement by Ihor Kolomoisky, an oligarch who has promoted the current President of Ukraine. He told an American newspaper that Kyiv should return to Russia’s sphere of influence, as it can count neither on joining the EU nor NATO. This may mean that the Kremlin is getting closer and closer to achieving the most important objectives of its aggressive policy – above all, to stop the expansion of the West in its own sphere of influence. The same trend is visible in stopping the EU’s enlargement to the Western Balkans. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Russian Permanent Representative to the EU reacted with satisfaction to the fact that France stopped this process.
It is worth recalling that the French ambitions also concern autonomy towards the US, including limiting American influence in the Old Continent, as well as stimulating integration processes in a direction allowing Paris to effectively influence the EU, and even control political processes in Europe. The post-war history of Western Europe is a significant example of this. After the end of World War II, this part of the continent was under the profound influence of the US. The instrument of this influence, in the opinion of the French elite, was largely NATO. That is why the French demanded that the US agree on the most important decisions of the Alliance with France. They even expected that tripartite mechanisms (between the US, France, and the UK) would be created, which would hammer out policies not only concerning NATO, but also all other key global issues. French politicians even suggested a geographical division of the spheres of influence within this triumvirate (or the new version of “concert of powers“), in which France was to get the West Europe, the UK – the Commonwealth, and the US – the Pacific. Since it was difficult to get Americans to realize such a vision, Charles de Gaulle decided to focus his efforts on building European integration with the central position of France, while at the same time treating integration as the main instrument for increasing strategic autonomy towards Washington and NATO.
The main driver of this vision in recent years has been the development of the EU’s defense policy. It is supposed to support the geopolitical plans of Paris – mainly related to the autonomy towards the US – but, in practice, also forcing the reconstruction of relations with Russia. In addition, the EU defense policy has very important economic objectives. The latter concern support for the industrial and technological base in the EU, especially the largest arms industry corporations in Western Europe. At the same time, the policy of the EU is to open up the entire EU internal market, also of Central European countries, to the sale of European armaments, and, if possible, make it more difficult to sell armaments from outside the EU, mainly from the US.
Macron is a defender of a multipolar order, which he understands as distancing himself from Washington and seeking agreement with Moscow and Beijing. During his visit to Shanghai, new WTO regulations were the subject of talks with President Xi – again against US policy. The escalation of the EU’s trade war with the United States may accelerate achieving objectives of Paris, but it is doubtful that this will be of any benefit to Europe. Even if the US has difficulty in holding back the geo-economic expansion of China, it will be all the more difficult for a lonely Europe – unless Macron is once again satisfied with making a deal on the terms dictated by its rival.
The actual strength of Europe on a global scale is best demonstrated by the failure of some EU countries to conclude an agreement with Iran to stop the development of nuclear weapons. The 2015 agreement with Iran, called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, was intended to bring about two basic goals for the three European signatories, i.e. France, the United Kingdom, and Germany (the so-called E3). The first goal was to rigorously constrain Tehran’s nuclear agenda, which has not been achieved – especially after the US left this agreement. Iran has been systematically withdrawing from its commitments in this respect, and European countries have neither reached for sanctions nor had any other idea of getting the Iranians to respect their own commitments. The second objective was to provide economic benefits from the agreement with Iran for European companies. In the situation of the tightening of US sanctions imposed on Tehran, the implementation of the discussed goal turned out to be impossible, even when European countries launched a special purpose vehicle (INSTEX), which was supposed to circumvent sanctions imposed by Washington.
The failure of all these efforts has clearly shown that the position of the three largest Member States (with the participation of the EU) does not create sufficient critical mass at the international level, especially when acting separately or even against US policy. This may suggest that France’s dream of creating a separate, and, at the same time, effective European ‘pole’ in international politics is too ambitious when confronted with real opportunities. Europe can be effective, but mostly only if it has the support of the US. Macron’s strategic autonomy and his concept of multipolarity serve Europe little, and what they do instead is that they undermine transatlantic ties. What is more, as a result, they indirectly support the geopolitical ambitions of Moscow and Beijing.
The French president aims to structurally reorganize the internal market. This idea is modeled on the solutions of state capitalism existing in France, and thus can be very beneficial for economic entities originating from that country. This reorganization includes a number of elements, ranging from the introduction of a transfer union in the Eurozone to the harmonization of taxes and social standards in the EU. Among other things, French politicians intend to introduce a minimum wage and a minimum basic income at EU level. In this way, they intend to improve the competitiveness of French undertakings in the internal market and, at the same time, to make enterprises from less regulated countries or countries with lower production costs less competitive.
In his famous speech at the University of Sorbonne in 2017, Macron presented the main objectives for the reform of the Eurozone. He supported the idea of a budget and a finance minister for the Eurozone, to increase structural investment and boost economic growth. He concluded that the budget of the Eurozone should come primarily from European taxes (and, as a result, be independent of the influence of the largest potential payer – Germany). What is more, French experts also add to that the need to set up common Eurozone bonds (the so-called safe haven assets), which could provide security for the growing public debt in the monetary union and increase public investment. All these proposals aim at creating a transfer union and potentially increase chances of public debt – which would be beneficial for France and its southern European allies. However, it would be risky for German and Dutch politicians demanding greater fiscal discipline and stabilization of the banking sector in the monetary union.
French politicians also want to promote European champions, primarily understood as French-capital companies. It is worth recalling that the new position of the “super-commissioner” (who will be responsible for the internal market, industrial policy, defense, space, and digital technologies) will be held by a trusted colleague of the French President – Thierry Breton. It is the same person to whom Macron, who then worked as a Rothschild’s banker, was advising in 2010 on the acquisition of a part of a German company, Siemens, by Breton-led company Atos. It is also said that later Macron was the instigator, and certainly the advocate of the merger of French Alstom and Siemens. Smaller countries such as the Benelux, the Nordic countries and Spain are opposed to his concept of ‘champions’ and the departure from the principles of competition policy.
Macron also aims to open up the single market to a higher extent to products, services, and investments of European champions, while at the same time limiting access to this market to external competitors. This applies, among others, to Internet and arms industry corporations – mainly American ones. The aim of French politicians is, therefore, to restrict access to the internal market for major external competitors, both in terms of public procurement in the EU or other opportunities to sell products, but also to make investments in the EU, for instance by acquiring European companies. In the latter case, it mainly concerns the Chinese competitors.
President Macron’s industrial policy is directly linked to his ambitious climate policy – which, at the same time, is the flagship objective of the new European Commission led by Ursula von der Leyen – which announced the introduction of the European Green Deal. The goal of French politicians is to make an actual industrial revolution based on a radical shift to low or even zero-carbon technologies. This approach can translate into a huge scale of investments in the EU by stimulating economic growth, and benefiting, above all, countries and companies with proper green technologies. The reason is that they have the potential to contribute to earning a lot of money by selling them both within and outside the EU. Besides, the idea is for the EU to put pressure on non-EU countries to apply climate standards similar to those of the internal market, for instance, through the imposition of punitive tariffs or applicable provisions in trade agreements with external partners.
However, the effectiveness of these intentions may turn out to be disappointing. This is primarily because the EU’s largest trading partners, such as China and the US, which are also the biggest emitters of greenhouse gases, can effectively avoid political pressure from the EU. If punitive duties are imposed, they can strike back imposing retaliatory tariffs on other services or goods – which will certainly hit European exports. In this way, an ambitious climate transformation in the EU could worsen the competitiveness of production in many sectors of the EU economy, to the detriment of rivals, particularly the US and China. The EU’s climate policy also causes strong tensions in Europe, as it generates disproportionate costs – for instance in Central Europe, especially in Poland, where coal and natural gas are the primary sources of generating electricity. For this reason, the Polish authorities have asked their EU partners to provide more financial assistance or to exclude the achievement of climate policy goals from the ambitious agenda. However, the French President is opposed to this and expects all countries to adhere to costly climate objectives. He intends to outvote possible opponents as part of decision-making procedures in intergovernmental institutions.
For these reasons, the objectives of the French policy create tensions between EU countries and may also turn out to be disappointing in terms of stimulating growth in the European economy. Nevertheless, President Macron strongly supports this direction of change in Europe. It seems that the explanation for his determination is primarily politics. Many voters in Western Europe have increasingly strong views willing to counteract climate change. It is, therefore, an electoral theme that could possibly stop Eurosceptic tendencies in this part of the EU and, therefore, restore them to pro-European ideas. This is what the left-wing groups, in particular, are counting on, as they have made support for ecology and climate one of the most important campaign slogans. All these calculations can only be made if climate change does not lead to too strong an increase in energy prices and if it does not reduce the competitiveness of the European economy. Otherwise, in the eyes of Europeans, it will be proof of yet another fiasco of EU policy.
Concentration of power
France has for years sought to concentrate power in the center of the European Communities (later in the EU), preferably in the Eurozone. This has been promoted under either “a two-speed Europe” or “a concentric circles Europe” slogan. The main idea behind all this is to ensure that France has more influence on the EU. However, an important effect of this strategy is increasing the asymmetry in European policies, that is strengthening the role of the western part of the EU and weakening its eastern part. One example of the practical implementation of this vision are nominations for top positions in the European institutions in 2019, where there was no room for representatives of Central Europe. Another example is the nomination of committee chairs in the European Parliament after the 2019 elections. Of the twenty-two committees, only in two of them chairs from Central Europe were appointed. Meanwhile, the Germans filled five, and the French four positions.
The influence of Paris on EU policies is also increased through two other mechanisms. French experts encourage widening the scope of majority voting in intergovernmental institutions, which they believe could improve the governance of the EU. This way of proceeding significantly increases the influence of the largest Member States on EU policies. Another idea is introducing new solutions only by the countries approving of it. This was the case with the French idea of the European Intervention Initiative. It was established outside EU structures although, at the same time, another cooperation of some countries in the same area of defense policy, Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO), was established as part of the EU. Nevertheless, France wanted to launch more ambitious ideas for military cooperation (paving the way for a European army) than those envisaged by PESCO. Moreover, Paris has been taking a leading role in the European Intervention Initiative from the outset and can thus have more influence on its direction and use. This initiative is regarded as yet another idea of weakening NATO and the American military presence in Europe. However, it may also lead to a weakening of the EU’s defense policy, as it builds cooperation structures outside the EU, including with the UK, a country that has just left the EU.
This example shows that not all forms of cooperation between the selected group of countries in Europe can strengthen European integration, especially when they are created – even if only temporarily – outside EU structures. Such actions most often cause divisions between the Member States, which, if they concern strategic issues, may prove to be considerably more enduring, or even permanent. While they may meet the ambitions of leaders in this form of cooperation, they may not necessarily strengthen European integration and the EU’s cohesion in the face of major international challenges.
The aim of Macron’s diplomatic offensive since 2017 has been to fundamentally converse integration processes. This change is being forced by his unconventional methods of operation. It is intended to change the strategic architecture in Europe, introduce a new economic system in the internal market, and deepen the asymmetry of governance in the EU. Under the banner of creating “European sovereignty“, Paris is pushing for solutions in line with its own interests. However, there are many doubts as to whether the French proposals are beneficial for the whole of Europe, and even whether they are advantageous for the European integration itself. What is certain is that they cause controversy and dispute in a crisis-weary EU.
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 Ibidem, p. 72.
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Author: prof. Tomasz Grzegorz Grosse