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French interests in Central and Eastern Europe

France and Central and Eastern Europe do not currently possess a very high-profile political relationship. Nevertheless, the region is quickly becoming an essential part of Paris’s foreign policy.

January 21, 2022 - Soso Chachanidze - Articles and Commentary

French President Emmanuel Macron and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán during the V4+France Summit in Budapest December 13th 2021. Photo: Official release

On December 13th 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron attended the summit of the Visegrad Group (V4) in Budapest. The meeting was significant in the context of the EU’s relations with the V4, with Paris set to take over the Council of the European Union’s rotating presidency in the new year. Due to this, the visit also appeared specifically important for France’s individual interests in Central and Eastern Europe (CEE).

Macron’s visit to Budapest was an attempt to show that the new French presidency would address the EU’s various disagreements with the V4 states. This is especially true in the case of a Hungarian administration currently in control of the Visegrad Group’s own rotating presidency. The anti-migrant and anti-minority policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government have raised a number of red flags in Brussels. This has even resulted in open and strict criticism from EU leaders such as Macron. Another member of the V4, Poland, is also faced with significant rule of law issues, especially with regards to sexual minorities. This has resulted in Budapest and Warsaw missing out on access to the EU’s pandemic recovery fund. Naturally, this has caused great controversy within the EU.

Heated debate

Similar domestic political contexts played a big role in the Macron-Orbán encounter. After all, both leaders face elections in 2022. Whilst French opinion polls do not indicate that Macron has a clear edge over his opponents, Orbán is expected to face quite possibly the strongest opposition challenge to his rule since he took charge of the country in 2010. With winning electoral votes in mind, it should not have been expected that either of the two leaders would be in the mood for changing their positions. This was made clear during Macron’s associated interviews, with the French president openly acknowledging the EU’s ongoing “political disagreements” with Budapest. Nevertheless, he highlighted his desire to “work together for Europe” despite these differences.

Both leaders clearly stood their ground during the summit. Orbán said that Hungary´s pandemic aid is being delayed because his government is defending “traditional, Christian values” against the “LGBT ideology” of other EU countries. In response, Macron said that Budapest “has not displayed the will” to make any steps towards reform. He went on to say that the EU would subsequently delay the stimulus payment right up until the Hungarian elections. This would naturally be a big problem for Orban’s Fidesz government. The current V4 head also stayed loyal to his anti-migrant ideology, which represents a much wider divide between the EU’s East and West.

In response to Orbán’s discussions with the French president’s far-right opponents two months before the meeting, Macron paid his respects at the grave of Agnes Heller. This liberal Hungarian philosopher was one of the most prominent opponents of Orbán’s government.

Potential cooperation

Besides clear differences, there are subjects in which the French and Hungarian leaders could find common ground. One such shared interest is the EU’s recognition of nuclear energy as a renewable energy source. In 2020, nuclear power plants were responsible for 70 percent of France’s total energy production. In Hungary, this number is around 50 per cent and is expected to grow, especially after the Russian funded Paks II plant becomes operational. Classifying more sources as green is also in Poland’s interest. Warsaw has opted out of the European Green Deal and declared that it will follow its own reform agenda for the energy sector. While Germany continues to shut down its last active nuclear reactors, France will need to gather all the support it can from the rest of the member states.

Macron and Orbán are also both interested in strengthening the EU’s “strategic autonomy” in the security sector. The French president, who is the main backer of such an idea, stated in 2019 that NATO was “brain dead” and that there is no guarantee the US will honour its mutual defence obligations. He also stated that the EU needs to wake up and start thinking as a geopolitical power. This has been a key policy for Macron as elections draw closer and Paris takes over the Council of the European Union’s presidency. Indeed, he now desires to take specific steps towards the completion of his grand geopolitical project. After agreeing to sell Greece four frigates last September, Macron noted that he hoped the deal would be the first step towards European strategic autonomy.

A growing priority

Macron’s strategic autonomy cannot be realised without the support of Central and Eastern Europe. The region is naturally the most vulnerable part of the EU when it comes to various threats connected with the post-Soviet world. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea and occupation of Donbas in 2014, NATO´s eastern members have continuously requested that their allies strengthen their presence in the region. The French president needs to prove that Europe led by Paris is able to defend itself without NATO and the US. As part of these efforts, Macron promised to help Ukraine through diplomatic and military means in order to defend its territorial integrity and sovereignty against potential Russian aggression. This is a good chance for him to show the continent that he “means business”.

Previously, Macron’s ideas have raised doubts in Central and Eastern Europe, especially when he stated his desire for rapprochement with Russia soon after his election. His visit to Budapest was the first by a French president in 14 years. This serves as a good indicator that the region has not been the highest priority in Paris. Various internal issues and ideological conflicts have further resulted in a divide between France and the CEE states. However, priorities have now changed as Macron’s internal cohesion and strategic autonomy ideas increasingly depend on gaining support from the region’s states.

Continued differences between Paris and the region will subsequently prove a challenge for growing French interest in the area. As a result, it is clear that both sides need to reach a compromise regarding these issues in order to move forward in areas of common interest. However, political differences and electoral pressures do not leave much room for flexibility among the leaders. It will be interesting to see how France realises its interests in this region. Certainly, Macron must be willing to risk backlash if he is to reach a compromise and bring the region’s states onboard with his defence and migration projects.

Soso Chachanidze is a International Relations BA student at Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest. A Stipendium Hungaricum scholar from Georgia, he is Interested in security issues, the post-Soviet area, Central and Eastern European states, the EU and its neighbourhood policies, European defence and security architecture.

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