Mere days into his new presidency, and Emmanuel Macron is already demonstrating he has lost none of his towering ambition.
Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Macron – in the midst of a vast war on the European continent, don’t forget – proposed a new political community for the continent, to sit alongside the European Union. A community, he said, that “would adhere to our values to find a new space for political cooperation”, and would be open to those not yet in the EU and those who had left.
It’s no surprise whom he was talking about: Ukraine, a country desperate to be let into the EU, and the United Kingdom, which recently stormed out. To difficult questions, Macron had big answers. The only trouble is they are answers no-one wants. France’s philosopher king is a grand thinker, but one doomed to live in an age of pragmatism. The issues that plague Europe today are big – but they have already existing solutions.
The trouble for Macron is that the Russian war against Ukraine has ushered in a new age for Europe, one where grand ideas and theories are little match for the desperate urgency of solving wars and economic crises. He ought to be familiar with this from his own bruising election, which turned on cost of living crises and other domestic issues inside France. But with the election over, Macron has turned his gaze outward, and is already offering grand ideas, unaware the world has shifted.
For all of Macron’s talk about a new “structure” for Europe, the structure that Europe has is working well, and few appear to be inclined to change it. On the contrary, Finland and Sweden, far from seeking a new way of relating to their neighbors, are actually giving up their old way of relating and tying themselves to the continent’s existing security structures. Both Finland and Sweden are expected to make the crucial decision to join NATO within days, something long thought unlikely until the Russian invasion. The same is true of France’s long-running argument for greater European “independence” – by which Macron means from the United States. Macron has always been Europe’s most forceful advocate for the continent being in charge of its own security, and not reliant on the superpower across the Atlantic.
Again, the Russian war has shattered that notion. Most European countries are more convinced than ever before that NATO is the security architecture of their future. It may be hard for a nuclear-armed country like France to recognize, but for smaller countries along Russia’s border, their situation suddenly feels more precarious, and they want the military heft of an American-backed NATO to feel comfortable. Far from NATO being “brain dead” – as the French president once declared – most of Europe now sees it as both alive and essential to their survival.
This is especially the case since the war has shown starkly that the “hard power West” – meaning the US and the handful of European countries able to defend themselves with advanced weapons, fighter jets and nuclear deterrents – are extremely selective to whom they offer that umbrella. For all the warm words about Ukraine being a European country, not a single American, British or French soldier has been put in harms way to defend Ukraine. Other smaller countries will have seen and understood that message perfectly. They will expend their political energies to get inside that existing club, not to create a brand new club whose rules of engagement have never been tested.
The same is also true of EU accession. By proposing a new Europe-wide group, the French president is trying to solve a very particular and thorny problem, namely that, as he admitted, Ukraine is perhaps decades away from sufficient reform to join the EU. The same is true of countries in the Western Balkans, or even Turkey, none of which are likely to reform sufficiently for the EU in the coming years.
For those countries, however, an EU-lite is not the answer. They want EU accession. Meeting Macron in Berlin this week, even the German Chancellor Olaf Scholz stressed that Macron’s “interesting approach” would not change the basic reality of the accession process for the Balkans.
The same is even true for the suggestion that members who have left – rather obvious code for the United Kingdom – could join this new community. But again, there already is an answer. Those within the UK who still hanker for the EU don’t want a replacement – they want to return to the EU. And those still vehemently opposed to the EU are hardly going to start the process of rejoining some other, EU-lite community.
The Ukraine war has even buried the most forward-thinking ideology for which Macron was an advocate, the idea that Russia could be part of Europe’s security architecture. In his first term Macron, while Britain was profoundly suspicious of Russian intentions and Germany was locked in an unhappy embrace, it was France that championed the idea that Russia could have a new relationship with Europe.
All of that has gone, burned away in the war zone around Ukraine. Instead the old idea has resurfaced – that Russia is a threat first and last, and only a determined military build-up can keep Moscow at bay.
Macron has always vaunted his intellectual credentials, believing that gravitas could build a new world, even without Germanic money or American arms. But the war in Ukraine has shown the limits of this new world, where the answers are already known and the only unknown is the political will to achieve them.
Faisal Al Yafai is currently writing a book on the Middle East and is a frequent commentator on international TV news networks. He has worked for news outlets such as The Guardian and the BBC, and reported on the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Asia and Africa.