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Macron’s wake-up call to EU
The French President has rightly said that the bloc needs to assert sovereignty over its political and security decisions.
In November, French President Emmanuel Macron created a political stir with a far-reaching interview in which he declared that “Europe is on the edge of a precipice”, unable to cope with the political challenges of the U.S. pursuing ‘America first’; a resentful Russia on its border; and a China determined to emerge as the new global power. Coming after the European Union (EU) meet in October and prior to the upcoming North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) summit (scheduled to take place this week), Mr. Macron’s interview gave a wake-up call to the EU and reminded it that the bloc can no longer be an economic giant and a political dwarf.
The EU’s precursor, the European Economic Community (EEC), was established in 1957, following the Treaty of Rome. Consisting of a homogeneous group of six countries (Belgium, France, West Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands), it quickly formed a customs union. Five of these six nations were also founding members of NATO, which had been set up in 1949.
The next stage was the Treaty of Maastricht, signed in 1992 to reflect the realities of a post-Cold War Europe and a unified Germany. It helped create the Euro and, later, also pushed the eastward expansion of the EU. The Treaty of Lisbon in 2007 marked another political evolution, giving the EU a stronger legal character by introducing a permanent President of the European Council and strengthening the position of the High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy.
These were steps towards a nascent European sovereignty but ended up exposing weaknesses in the project. Today, the EU’s 28 member states are a heterogeneous lot, unlike the original six; and a key member, the U.K., is already sitting in the departure lounge. The idea of Europe with a “variable geometry”, proposed during the hasty expansion during the 1990s to accommodate differences is now a clear sign of political disunity.
Meanwhile, NATO has 27 European member states (plus Canada and the U.S.) and most, but not all, are EU members. NATO’s major expansion took place post-Cold War when the Baltic states and a number of East European countries joined. The Eurozone consists of 19 (out of the 28) EU members while the Schengen common visa area covers 26 European countries. And then, there is the 31-member European Economic Area, composed of the EU-28 and Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. The Council of Europe in Strasbourg was set up in 1949 to promote human rights, democracy and the rule of law and currently has 47 member countries, including the 28 EU nations. Rounding up, there is the 57-member Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, established originally to promote confidence and security building measures, which now also has the mandate of free elections, open media and human rights.
Somewhere in this multiplicity, the EU lost its political moorings. Originally, it was a grouping of West European democracies committed to closer economic ties, with NATO as the security provider. Liberal democracy was integral to EU membership. Greece joined the EEC in 1961 but was suspended in 1967 after the military coup. Spain’s request in 1962, under General Francisco Franco, for membership was rejected. Eventually, Greece applied again in 1975 and was admitted in 1981, while Spain and Portugal joined in 1986. Today, Viktor Orban, Prime Minister of Hungary (which joined in 2004) proudly claims to represent an “illiberal democracy”. Right-wing populist leaders in other European countries have also become more vocal and visible in recent years and many of them would like to retrieve sovereignty back from Brussels.
NATO’s diminishing role
Mr. Macron’s blunt assessment was that the U.S., which guaranteed West European security during the Cold War, can no longer be relied upon to play the same role because its priorities are changing. He cited President Donald Trump’s recent unilateral decision to withdraw U.S. troops from Syria as an example, since it was taken without consultation or coordination with NATO allies. Further, it gave another NATO member, Turkey, the licence to undertake military operations in Syria, creating tensions with NATO allies operating in the area. In Mr. Macron’s words, Europe is seeing the “brain death” of NATO.
NATO was never a grouping of equals. The U.S. always contributed the larger share and underwrote European security. Out of NATO’s common budget of approx. $2.5 billion, the U.S. contributes 22%, Germany around 15% and France and the U.K. more than 10% each. However, in terms of defence budgets, there is significant disparity, which makes NATO completely dependent on the U.S. for airlift and space-based assets.
The U.S. spends 3.6% of its GDP on defence, amounting to a whopping $700 billion with most major European countries spending between 1% and 2%. In 2014, after considerable prodding by the U.S., members had agreed to bring up their budgets to 2% of GDP by 2024. At present, among major countries, only the U.K. spends 2% of its GDP on defence. France is at 1.8% and Germany at 1.2%.
These variations were accepted as long as the U.S. and Europe enjoyed political convergence but now rankle Mr. Trump, who has taken a transactional approach and, according to Mr. Macron, “does not share our idea of the European project”. In any case, there are historical shifts under way, with the U.S. less engaged in West Asia on account of becoming self-sufficient in hydrocarbons, and focusing more on the Indo-Pacific. Consequently, the U.S.’s commitment to NATO is undergoing a change and the Europeans need to recognise it.
The way ahead
Mr. Macron’s words were called “drastic” by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, though she had echoed similar sentiments two years ago after a difficult G7 summit in Sicily when she urged Europeans “to take our fate into our own hands” because “the era in which we could fully rely on others is over to some extent”.
Yet, the way ahead is not clear. Mr. Macron’s suggestion for a rapprochement with Russia to prevent it from getting closer to China makes Poland, Czech Republic and the Baltic countries nervous.
China has already driven a wedge in the EU with 14 EU countries, including Italy, now part of Belt & Road Initiative. In 2012, China began its dialogue with East European countries in the 16+1 format; out of the 16, 11 are EU states and 13 are NATO members. This has made it impossible for the EU to take a common approach on issues like 5G and Huawei, while allowing China to selectively increase investments in critical areas in European countries to which France and Germany are now waking up. Even after taking a unified stand to preserve the Iran nuclear deal following the U.S.’s unilateral exit more than 18 months ago, the EU failed to deliver on its assurances to provide concrete relief to Tehran against U.S. sanctions.
The problem is that NATO provided security on the cheap and now, when Mr. Trump questions the utility of NATO, it only exposes differences between Europeans who want to develop greater military and diplomatic heft and others (the Baltic nations and East Europeans) who fear this will loosen ties with the U.S.
In today’s uncertain times, the EU stands for a rules-based order but as Mr. Macron rightly pointed out, the EU can only emerge as a strategic actor once it is able to assert sovereignty over its political, diplomatic and security decisions. Perhaps, the time for it has come as the Anglo-Saxon influence over Europe recedes with Brexit and the rise of Mr. Trump.
This commentary originally appeared in The Hindu.
Rakesh Sood (ORF)
13 December 2019