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France and Eastern Europe: Does Macron have a plan?

Emmanuel Macron wants to embody the return of a dynamic Europe, even if to envisage a multi-speed Europe around a state capable of stimulating a dynamic. To take the lead in this movement, he must show that France is credible on economic matters.

December 13, 2017 - Cyrille Bret and Florent Parmentier - Analysis

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At the end of August, the President of the French Republic made a diplomatic tour to Austria, Romania and Bulgaria. On the November 23rd, after months of tension, the French president had (at last) talks in Paris with the Polish prime minister Beata Szydło. The day after, on November 24th, he ensured that France’s voice was heard at the Eastern Partnership Summit. Is President Macron paving the way to a (long awaited) French strategy for Eastern Europe?

France, a minor player in the Eastern League?

Among the eastern EU member states and beyond, in the former Soviet area, the French diplomacy enjoys a solid reputation of indifference towards the region. During negotiations leading to the 2004 enlargement and throughout talks on the 2009 Eastern Partnership, the French presidents Jacques Chirac and Nicolas Sarkozy chose to put emphasis upon the Mediterranean dimension of Europe. Both Chirac and Sarkozy openly expressed skepticism on the ability of the new member states to contribute to the construction of Europe.

As a result, the role of France remains modest in the east. Germany is obviously the key player in the region and Poland is increasing its regional leadership, through NATO and the V4. Even specialised actors overshadow France, like Estonia on digital governance, Austria on economic issues and Romania on the Black Sea. The lack of interest of France for eastern Europe is supposedly furthered by the traditional pro-Russian stance of the French diplomacy.

Is France doomed to remain a second-rate power in the region? Certainly not if France plays the role it should in the EU and in the Eastern Partnership. France is the main European pillar in the defence sector. The five Eastern Partnership states with territorial disputes arising from the collapse of the USSR know it: France maintains its rank in the OSCE; it is a member of the Minsk group on Nagorno-Karabakh; it contributed to the mediation of the Russo-Georgian war in 2008; it proposed the Normandy format (France, Germany, Russia, Ukraine) on eastern Ukraine and contributes to NATO reengagement in the Baltic States. If France wants to restore its status in Europe, it should highlight the role it is ready to play for the security of the eastern EU states.

Redesigning the division of work with Germany

Thanks to the 2004 enlargement and to the 2009 Eastern Partnership, Germany launched a full-fledged Mittel Europa strategy. It is now the major economic player. On the political level, Germany overcame its tragic historical burden by constantly supporting the enlargement. A division of work arose from that downturn: Germany favored the integration policies of the EU members and the neighborhood policies, whereas France was charged with Mediterranean initiatives.

Today, however, the Germans and French share some reluctance towards any new substantial enlargement. Supported by the European Commission president, Paris and Berlin advocate demanding negotiation positions towards the Balkan countries and display skepticism towards any extension to Ukraine.

Despite what is being repeated in the French press, the political setbacks of Angela Merkel cannot be considered good news for Emmanuel Macron. A less governable Germany would not be able to effectively relay the project of Emmanuel Macron. In other words, France needs a strong German ally to voice its pro-European programme.

What can be the eastern strategy of France?

First and foremost, to offer security and solidarity to states that are in direct contact with Russia and that are grappling with economic challenges. This vision was a key element of Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the Sorbonne University on September 26th – Europe must acquire an autonomous capacity for action in addition to NATO. France’s European partners as deeply attached to NATO but, unlike Poland, are not keen to invest in their own security. Brexit leaves only one nuclear power in Europe.

Today, Donald Trump appears as a dubious protector of Europe’s stability. As such, France has found its place in NATO. It is thus high time for France to revive the Weimar Triangle and to propose security and solidarity for the east. France’s European partners could only appreciate a resolute commitment to the eastern neighborhood of Europe and a clear position on Russia.

Revive the difficult dialogue with the Visegrad Group

But security is not enough. Indeed, the economic and fiscal troubles of France and its opposition to the V4 on the refugees to the posted workers weaken its influence. For example, the Czech President Milos Zeman was able to say recently that Russia was ten times larger than France, since it had won 140 business leaders in Moscow, against 14 during a visit to Paris. His statement shows the mistrust that France still inspires in economic terms, but also makes it possible to measure that the Visegrad group (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia) is not a homogeneous bloc, including on issues such as Russia. President Zeman also urged to lift the sanctions against Russia.

Furthermore, Macron is at odds with Poland’s ruling Law and Justice (PiS): for him, the PiS government embodies a nationalistic vision of Europe, criticism of Brussels liberalism in its different forms and of Germany in particular. In contrast, Emmanuel Macron wants to embody the return of a dynamic Europe, even if to envisage a multi-speed Europe around a state capable of stimulating a dynamic. To take the lead in this movement, he must show that France is credible on economic matters. The plan for Eastern Europe has to be articulated, as time is running out.

Cyrille Bret is an associate professor at the National Institute of Political Science. He teaches geopolitics of Europe and the post-Soviet space. 

Florent Parmentier is associate professors at Sciences Po and director of eurasiaprospective.net.

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