To Macron or not to Macron?
When Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the former foreign minister and now federal president of Germany, once tried to describe Germany’s role in Europe; he called it the “chief facilitating officer”. France’s newfound role under Macron now seems to be that of Europe’s “disrupter-in-chief”. That these two roles do not necessarily match is no surprise.
Especially for the Central and Eastern European states, Macron appears to be the proverbial fox in the henhouse. The list of what makes Macron’s recent moves suspicious to these countries is long, and it mostly relates to Russia. Apart from his notorious “braindead” comment when it comes to NATO, Macron called for a rapprochement Russia – without any coordination with Germany and Central and Eastern Europe.
First, Macron demanded a reassessment of relations with Russia at the ambassadors’ conference in August 2019: pushing Russia away would be a major strategic error, he claimed. This was followed by a French roadmap focusing on disarmament, security dialogue, and crisis management to be implemented by the newly appointed special envoy, Pierre Vimont. In the run-up to the G7 meeting, Macron met with Vladimir Putin and dispatched his minister for Europe and foreign affairs and the minister for the Armed Forces to Moscow to resume the 2+2 bilateral dialogue. He also suggested considering Russian moratorium proposal with regard to the deployment of short- and intermediate-range nuclear missiles, which NATO deemed not credible.
Finally, yet importantly, the French veto on North Macedonia’s and Albania’s accession perspective was perceived as playing into Russia’s hands by Central and Eastern European states. Macron’s Russia policy shift also resulted in fears that France might pressure Ukraine into concessions at the Normandy-format meeting in Paris in December 2019 to remove obstacles and achieve a quick fix with Russia. This mistrust was also fuelled by Macron’s rhetoric.
Although Macron claims to be “in no way naive”, he partly shares the narrative advanced by Russian commentators: namely, that in the 1990s and 2000s, a “series of misunderstandings” took place, which created the impression of Europe as a “Trojan Horse for the West, whose final aim was to destroy Russia”. A Russian analyst even argued that Macron’s views on European security and world order coincided with those of the Russian president, and went on to declare that “Macron is ‘Ours”.
This, however, is a fairly simplistic understanding of Macron’s position. What Macron is actually saying is that, in a changing international context, Europe cannot afford a conflictual relationship with Russia. This would prevent Europe from achieving strategic autonomy and leave it at the mercy of decisions taken by the US and Russia.
For Europe to remain a relevant player in a future world shaped by a bipolar US-China rivalry, as Macron argues, a “common front” is needed between the EU and Russia. In particular, Macron wants to offer Russia a strategic alternative to China, as Moscow would “inevitably” face the decision of whether it wants to remain a “minority ally of China”. Macron’s logic is similar to traditional Gaullist geopolitical thought: in a time of strong competition between the US and China, Europe needs to rely on itself, and this includes getting along with its powerful neighbour – Russia. This is particularly relevant since – according to Macron – Russia has regained a crucial role in many regions due to western “weakness” while a Russian-Chinese alliance would not be in Europe’s interest.
This geopolitical logic, at first glance, seems compelling: if a rapprochement with Russia is required out of geopolitical necessity, namely, to have Russia as an ally against an increasingly powerful China, why not soften Europe’s stance towards Russia? There are two important fallacies in this way of thinking. First, an unconditional European outreach will not prompt Moscow to choose between Europe and China, but it is likely to take advantage of both of them. It is a significant overestimation to assume that Europe might be able to drive a wedge between Russia and China by offering better relations or lifting sanctions. Traditionally, Russia has always preferred bilateral relations with member states, instead of a strong EU. Second, the changing international context has not led Russia to change. From domestic repressions to violations of international norms and interference, Russia’s approach towards many areas remains a challenge on its own and cannot be qualified as the “lesser evil” when compared to China.
Does this mean that Macron’s call for outreach and dialogue is wrong and misguided from the start? No, it is not. However, it crucially depends on framework conditions. In his ambassadors’ speech, Macron described a “rapprochement accompanied by strong conditions”. The litmus test for Macron’s new Russian policy will be to what extent he is willing to soften the existing red lines – sanctions, the Minsk agreements, and Russia’s return to the G8. Progress within these guardrails is highly desirable, but it might prove more difficult than Macron imagines, as the Normandy summit has indicated.
Macron is right though: Europe should start thinking more geopolitically. However, lowering European preconditions for strategic dialogue with Russia risks not a European-Russian win-win, but rather a double win for Russia. Europe can only assert itself by upholding the principles, rules and values it is built upon. Abandoning these principles for the sake of presumed geopolitical necessity means that it would be entering into uncharted territory. This scenario is particularly relevant for Europe’s Eastern neighbourhood. If reaching out to Russia implies accepting its claim to a sphere of influence in Central and Eastern Europe, this would set a dangerous precedent.
Finally, Macron should not repeat mistakes of the past. Germany’s Meseberg initiative from 2010 is an important lesson: without prior coordination, Germany concluded a bilateral agreement with Russia on the establishment of the EU-Russia Political and Security Committee in return for Russian conflict resolution in Transnistria. The response from Brussels and member state capitals was, to say the least, lukewarm. Macron needs to weigh the balance between ambition and inclusiveness in Europe if he wants to improve security co-operation with Russia. To achieve his aim, however, he needs a united Europe – otherwise, he will be perceived as lightweight, and not only in Moscow.
Liana Fix is programme director in the international affairs department of Körber Foundation in Berlin.