The French president’s comments to POLITICO about not being drawn into a US-China conflict rattled easterners who favor closer ties with the Americans.
Stop driving Europe away from the United States, dismayed central and eastern European officials fumed on Tuesday as French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments continued to ripple across the Continent.
Macron jolted allies in the EU’s eastern half after a visit to China last week when he cautioned the Continent against getting pulled into a U.S.-China dispute over Taiwan, the self-ruled island Beijing claims as its own, imploring his neighbors to avoid becoming Washington and Beijing’s “vassals.”
The comments rattled those near the EU’s eastern edge, who have historically favored closer ties with the Americans — especially on defense — and pushed for a harsher approach to Beijing.
“Instead of building strategic autonomy from the United States, I propose a strategic partnership with the United States,” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said Tuesday before flying off to the U.S., of all places, for a three-day visit.
Privately, diplomats were even franker.
“We cannot understand [Macron’s] position on transatlantic relations during these very challenging times,” said one diplomat from an Eastern European country, who, like others, spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely express themselves. “We, as the EU, should be united. Unfortunately, this visit and French remarks following it are not helpful.”
The reactions reflect the long-simmering divisions within Europe over how to best defend itself. Macron has long argued for Europe to become more autonomous economically and militarily — a push many in Central and Eastern Europe fear could alienate a valuable U.S. helping keep Russia at bay, even if they support boosting the EU’s ability to act independently.
“In the current world of geopolitical shifts, and especially in the face of Russia’s war against Ukraine, it is obvious that democracies have to work closer together than ever before,” said another senior diplomat from Eastern Europe. “We should be all reminded of the wisdom of the first U.S ambassador to France Benjamin Franklin who rightly remarked that either we stick together or we will be hanged separately.”
Macron, a third senior diplomat from the same region huffed, was freelancing yet again: “It is not the first time that Macron has expressed views that are his own and do not represent the EU’s position.”
Walking into controversy
In his interview, Macron touched on a tense subject within Europe: how it should balance itself against the superpower fight between the U.S. and China.
The French president encouraged Europe to chart its own course, cautioning that Europe faces a “great risk” if it “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy.”
It’s a stance that has many adherents within Europe — and has even worked its way into official EU policy as officials work to slowly ensure the Continent’s supply lines aren’t fully yoked to China and others on everything from weapons to electric vehicles.
Macron said he wants Europe to become a “third pole” to counterbalance China and the U.S. in the long term. An imminent conflict between Being and Washington, he argued, would put that goal at risk.
Yet out east, officials lamented that the French leader was simply treating the U.S. and China as if they were essentially the same in a global power play.
The comments, the second diplomat said, were “both ill-timed and inappropriate to put both the United States and China on a par and suggest that the EU should keep strategic distance to both of them.”
A Central European diplomat flatly dismissed Macron’s stance as “pretty outrageous,” while another official from the same region chalked it up to an attempt “to distract from other problems and show that France is bigger than what it is” — a reference to the protests roiling France amid Macron’s pension reforms.
The frustration in Central and Eastern Europe stems in part from a feeling that the French president has never made clear who would replace Washington in Europe — especially if Russia expands its war beyond Ukraine, said Kristi Raik, head of the foreign policy program at the International Centre for Defence and Security, a think tank in Estonia, a country of about 1.3 million people that borders Russia.
It’s an emotional point for Europe’s eastern half, where memories of the Soviet era linger.
“We hear Macron talking about European strategic autonomy, and somehow just being completely silent about the issue, which has become so clear in Ukraine, that actually European security and defense depends very strongly on the U.S.,” Raik said.
Raik noted, of course, that European countries, most notably Germany, are scrambling to update their militaries. France has also pledged large increases in its defense budgets.
But these changes, she cautioned, will take a “very long time.”
If Macron “wants to be serious in showing that he really aims at a Europe that is capable of defending itself,” Raik argued, “he also should be showing that France is willing to do much more to defend Europe vis-à-vis Russia.”