French President Emmanuel Macron tried to persuade sceptical East Europeans that they had nothing to fear from a Europe that was more self-reliant in security on May 31 – and he almost pulled it off.
In a keynote speech in French at the annual hawkish Globsec security conference in Bratislava, Macron insisted that “we cannot delegate our collective security and our stability to the choice of American voters in the years to come," particularly when US presidential elections next year might bring to power a very different kind of US administration.
Though he did not spell it out, Macron clearly believes the threat of a return of Donald Trump – and his more US-centred, pro-Russian and Nato-sceptical foreign policy – may persuade East Europeans that Europe at least has to start making contingency plans to stand up for itself.
The former Communist states of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE) have traditionally looked to Washington to safeguard their security interests and have been suspicious of French attempts to make Europe more self-reliant, fearing that this could erode that US commitment.
Yet Macron argued that if Europe became more self-reliant it would benefit not only Europe itself but also Nato. Macron said that one of the lessons of the Ukraine war was how important it was to build up the European pillar of Nato.
His views were reinforced by strong comments by retired US general Ben Hodges on another Globsec panel, who delivered a bleak assessment of the lessons for Nato so far from the Ukraine war, pointing to shortcomings in infrastructure, capabilities and inter-operability. “We are so much better than what we were but we are nowhere near where we need to be if we want to defeat a Russian attack,” Hodges said.
Europe’s reliance on American defence technology and the shortages in its own defence supplies have reinforced Macron’s long-standing arguments that Europe needs to be more responsible for its own defence. Yet now he is couching this as something that is not just in Europe’s own interest but also Nato’s.
“Nato needs a European pillar. Nato needs a Europe that protects itself,” he said.
After scorning Nato as “brain dead” in 2019, Macron appears to have embraced it as the vehicle for European defence co-operation. "I can say that today Vladimir Putin jolted it awake with the worst of electric shocks," he added in reply to a question on his previous comments.
He complimented Nato on its response to the Russian invasion, where “the readiness was prompt, efficient and well-tailored”.
Macron also flattered the Eastern Flank Nato members by admitting that Western Europe should have listened beforehand to their warnings about Putin.
"Some said you had missed an opportunity to stay quiet,” he said to laughter, referring to former President Jacques Chirac’s comments on the Eastern European support for the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. “I think we also lost an opportunity to listen to you. This time is over."
He pointed that under his leadership France was now taking a much greater interest in the region than it had done since the inter-war years. “I would like France to be perceived as a credible long-term ally and partner for countries in this region,” he said in answer to a question.
Yet there was no hiding the continued differences between France and the Eastern Flank states.
Beyond increased defence preparedness, Europe should also be more active in global politics, the French president said.
“We Europeans need to be active players, active stakeholders. We can’t leave it up to others: the US, the Russians. We need to be credible partners, credible players,” the president said.
This may be a step too far for Nato’s members on the Eastern Flank, who worry that a much more active Europe might find itself striking very different foreign policy positions compared to the US, who they look to for global leadership.
CEE countries already reacted very negatively to Macron’s comments after his trip to Beijing in April, when he said that Europe should take charge of its own destiny and “not follow where the US leads” in its more confrontational stance towards China.
Questions from the audience afterwards also exposed other fault lines, not least over Ukraine.
CEE states continue to argue that any peace must primarily be acceptable to Ukraine, and that Russia should pay reparations for its destruction, and its leaders should face war crimes trials.
By contrast, Macron was negotiating with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin right up until the invasion and has talked to him several times subsequently by telephone.
Macron said in June 2022 that Putin should not “be humiliated” and that Russia needs post-war guarantees and to be part of the post-war security architecture, something that smells to Eastern Flank countries as very like rewarding Moscow for its aggression.
They argue that Putin needs to be “humiliated” in order to prevent him launching aggression again. They fear that Macron’s comments confirm Putin’s view that Russia deserves special rights as a so-called “great power” and will only embolden him to continue fighting the war.
In the question and answer session, Macron laid out a position much closer to that of the Eastern Flank states on the room for peace talks. He said that Ukraine should not be forced to concede territory. “There is only one peace and that is a peace that respects international law”, he said.
He also dismissed calls for an unconditional ceasefire by saying "if we accept a ceasefire or a frozen conflict [in Ukraine], time will be on Russia's side".
Yet he also stressed that “you have to negotiate with the leaders you have” and it would be very difficult to pursue peace talks with Putin at the same time as demanding that he stand trial for war crimes. “It is a question of timing,” he said. “There will be an arbitrage between justice and peace.”
There were also differences visible in Macron’s answer to a question on Belarus, where he argued that, by imposing sanctions for stealing the 2020 elections, “we put [Belarus President Aleksander Lukashenko] in a situation where he was trapped with Russia”.
He said he was not in favour of further measures against the Belarus regime, because Lukashenko needed an exit strategy. “We have to make clear the upside scenario,” he said.
Finally, in response to a question on whether he would support Nato membership for Ukraine – something on which there was virtually a consensus at Globsec, if not across the whole Eastern Flank – Macron ducked a direct answer, saying only that at the Nato summit in Vilnius in July, “I am not sure we will have a consensus on fully-fledged membership”.
Instead, he suggested that Ukraine should be offered some kind of half-way house before being granted full membership. "We have to build something between the security provided [by the US] to Israel and full-fledged membership," Macron said, including “strong, tangible and credible security guarantees".
Yet in what appeared a shift in the French position, he said that Ukraine needed some kind of "path" to full membership. “We need something much more substantial and we need a path towards membership,” the president said.
He finished to strong applause, having largely won over an audience that was highly sceptical at the outset. He now goes to spread the same message to all the leaders of the wider European region in Chisinau at the European Political Community summit, a format he invented.
Macron clearly believes that he is now swimming with the tide with his call for greater European self-reliance in security – if not making the waves himself.