The EU seeks its space in the post-pandemic world. Internally and externally conditioned by the rise of geopolitics and the rivalry between states, it aspires to redefine its power, its capabilities and its influence.
The European Community was not born with a vocation for power. Quite the contrary. It was about keeping German weapons capabilities under control and overcoming the wounds of the military confrontation through economic integration. However, the geopolitical loneliness that the European Union has felt in recent times, and the perception of vulnerability inflicted by the pandemic, has accelerated a new structuring narrative around security, strategic autonomy and sovereignty.
If Europe must learn to speak the "language of power", as Josep Borrell, the high representative for common foreign and security policy, defends, Paris hopes that the strategic autonomy of the EU is conjugated in French. Emmanuel Macron has been the forerunner in recovering the concept of power associated with the Union since his emblematic speech delivered at the Sorbonne in 2017. But this Europe that is “powerful in the world” and “fully sovereign”, which Macron claimed again in the presentation of the priorities of the rotating presidency currently occupied by France at the head of the Union, is not built only from capacities and instruments, but also from the political will to face the new global threats: health, economic , military, climatic or technological. We are entering a world in which geostrategic supremacy will depend, increasingly, on who has the technological capacity to manufacture microchips, and not only on the eternal discussion about a European army and the approval of a rapid intervention force of up to 5,000 soldiers, as contemplated in the proposal that will be approved during the French presidency of the EU.
The geopolitical strength of the Union will also depend on its diplomatic ability to define a shared strategy on Russia, "an unavoidable actor in the European security architecture" for Emmanuel Macron and a destabilizing element in European internal politics. The same goes for China. The EU is in the process of redefining its relations with Beijing, a “systemic rival” –according to the official position of the European Union–, and its coordination with the United States of Joe Biden.
The President of the Council, Charles Michel, has defined 2022 as "the year of European defense", and France aspires to contribute, during its rotating presidency, to giving a substantial boost to these common defense policies. But, to what extent are we facing a paradigm shift regarding the concept of power –civilian and normative– that the EU claimed for itself?
The true challenge of the post-pandemic EU, in a world in which the West has definitively lost supremacy, begins with its internal consolidation. In 2020, among the eight largest economies in the world, there were four European (three from the EU plus the United Kingdom); in 2050 there will be only one member country of the Union, Germany. The true existential crisis of the EU is, above all, political. Macron's ambiguity during his visit to Viktor Orbán, in December 2021, seeking support for his ideas on security and reform of the Schengen area, is the umpteenth example of European laxity in the face of the illiberal abuses of certain governments when it comes to reconciling agendas policies. "Democracy is not in question, but the way in which we exercise it is," says the researcher Florence Gaub, author of a long prospective analysis on the challenges of Europe in 2030.
Europe is made of strange and flexible geometry. The end of Angela Merkel's hyperdominance has led to the reconfiguration of alliances. An opportunity for Macron's European political agenda, in need of a rebalancing of forces in a clearly asymmetrical Franco-German axis in favor of Berlin, and the confirmation of a new alliance of interests between Paris and Rome, which leaves more than a decade behind of political disagreements and clashes of vanities and join forces in favor of the reform of the fiscal rules of the EU.
The Europeanism of the new traffic light coalition in Berlin augurs a certain flexibility on two sensitive points for Macron and supporters in general of a relaxation of European budget rules: the stability and growth pact, adopted in 1997, which limits the budget deficit of member states to 3% of their GDP and 60% of their public debt; and the possibility of consolidating the common European debt instrument created by the anticovid recovery plan of July 2020.
The weight of traditional leadership, embodied in the Franco-German engine, coexists today with a generational renewal, of new reactive leaderships, which seem to have freed themselves from the weight of community history to rethink the world from their capitals, with a pragmatic vision and utilitarian of the EU. Intergovernmentality, deployed under the protection of Merkel, ended up eroding the fragile legitimacy of community institutions.
In this variable geometry of political alliances, the new government in Berlin has also dusted off the old Weimar triangle that Helmut Kohl activated in the 1990s to contribute to the Polish democratic transition. Following tradition, on his first official visit after being sworn in last December, Foreign Minister Olaf Scholz traveled to Paris to meet Macron. And just a few days later he did the same to Warsaw. France and Poland, as the main axes of the new foreign minister's European policy. Just as Angela Merkel also did, declaring Donald Tusk's Poland a privileged ally of the chancellor who, initially, still had reservations about leading the EU alone. These were the first years of the economic crisis and, overcoming historical fears, the Polish government elevated Germany to the category of “indispensable nation” declaring that it was less afraid of German power than German inaction.
Merkel's long shadow is now history. In addition, if during her rule Germany became the decision-making power of the EU, macronism was in charge of emotionally reviving Europe from multiple crises. The arrival of Emmanuel Macron brought a symbolic power to the community project that goes beyond the pro-European euphoria unleashed on the night of May 7, 2017 with the slow walk of the president-elect, winner of Marine Le Pen's National Front, advancing through the Louvre corridor to the beat of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony. First it was Jean-Claude Juncker's European Commission, in its final stage of contrition for the cruelty meted out to Greece and the political costs of economic inequalities, who bought into the idea of l'Europe qui protège (the Europe that protects) as story to revive the battered pillar of social Europe. Now it is the geopolitical Commission of Ursula von der Leyen who has appropriated the appeals for greater European sovereignty in the face of the acceleration of the green and digital transitions.
In 1948, at the meeting in The Hague where it was decided to create the Council of Europe, Count Coudenhove-Kalergi, one of the instigators of the idea of unifying coal and steel from France and Germany, stated that "Europe is a and not an end. Europe as a process under permanent construction. Today's EU "is more a community of necessity than of choice," said the conclusions of a survey conducted last year by the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) of 11,000 citizens from nine EU countries. 52% of those surveyed wanted “a more unified European response to global threats and challenges”.
The European Union is the first stage of projection of the will of greatness and French ambition. For Macron, France and the European Union are two indivisible elements. General De Gaulle spoke in 1945 about "those moments in history in which the fate of Europe and, through it, even of the world, was decided on the soil of France." Macron's France still aspires to decide the fate of the European project, just as Europe is part of the heart of his presidential campaign for re-election.
However, this idea of Macron's greatness and power vanishes outside of Paris and is forced to be modulated in Brussels. The French have long “fallen out of love with Europe”, in the words of Bernard Cazeneuve, one of the figures who divided French socialism on the eve of the referendum that, in 2005, rejected the proposed European Constitution.
According to a survey carried out by Ifop, a few days after the inauguration of the French rotating presidency of the EU, 40% of the French people surveyed want a Europe with more sovereignty for the states, while only 29% are in favor of a more integrated Europe (31% of those surveyed did not know how to answer the question). In contrast, according to the same survey, 43% of Germans and 50% of Italians were in favor of a more federal Europe.
There is a France that blames the EU for the loss of greatness that has plunged it into pessimism. The portrait of an autocratic Europe in the hands of the overwhelming power of Germany became the central argument of an extreme right that replaced its objective of destroying the EU with that of taking institutional and political control of the Union.
In the tense electoral debate of May 3, 2017, Marine Le Pen snapped at Macron that, whatever happened in the second round of those presidential elections, France would end up being led by a woman – either by her or by Angela Merkel. –. In 2015, the leader of the then National Front had already played that same card when she greeted François Hollande as "vice chancellor" in a joint appearance of the French president with the chancellor in the European Parliament. The EU is one of the trenches of the French political confrontation. The construction of Europe understood as renunciation or, as Éric Zemmour wrote in Le suicide français, as “a wall” erected “between a representation without power (state governments) and a power without representation (technocrats, judges and lobbies). from Brussels).
France remains obsessed with its decline. Uncertainty and discontent have long fueled an increasingly frustrated electorate. The newspaper Le Monde warned a few months ago of "the fury of low wages." The economic malaise is mixed with the anti mobilizations, in all their declensions, and especially the anti-vaccines, which parade practically every weekend through the provincial cities of peripheral France. The French live in an existential anguish that the macroeconomic figures do not include, but that colors any analysis of the situation. They are not the yellow vests of 2018, which still haunt Emmanuel Macron's nightmares, but they are powerful background noise.
European social discontent transcends national logics: European peripheries –not necessarily geographical– that closely experience the demographic decline in the EU and the disparities in wealth per capita, who mistrust the patronage networks built in the democratization processes of some member states and tolerated by the rest of the community partners. For this reason, Macron's political future, like that of the European project, largely depends on how a credible and effective response is articulated to the feeling of fear that many Europeans have, because it is the political instrumentalization of these fears that has transformed profoundly the electoral and social face of the European Union in the last two decades. And France has been the spearhead of a Euroscepticism that, as it spread throughout the European Union, gained in influence and heterogeneity.
Not even General De Gaulle himself, when he said “We cannot make a federal omelette with the hard-boiled eggs of the old European nations”, could have imagined that the French reluctance towards the project they were leading would become so profound.
As Thierry Chopin of the Jacques Delors Institute warned (1), the "return of France to Europe" dreamed of by the current tenant of the Elysee will never be complete if "a return of Europe to France" does not take place. But a good part of France and Europe remain obsessed with their national essences.
Carme Colomina Saló is a senior researcher at CIDOB, Barcelona Center for International Affairs