President Macron, China, and European Strategic Autonomy [PODCAST]

In this episode of the Liberal Europe Podcast, Leszek Jażdżewski (Fundacja Liberté!) welcomes Sylvie Kauffmann, Editorial Director and foreign affairs columnist at the French ‘Le Monde’. They talk about controversies sparked by President Emmanuel Macron with his comments on China, Taiwan, and the United States, about French position on China and transatlantic relations, and about the future of strategic autonomy and different perspectives within the EU.

Leszek Jażdżewski (LJ): What is the French position on China at the moment?

Sylvie Kauffmann // Photo by Robert Bosch

Sylvie Kauffmann (SK): There are many elements to this, but the fundamental position is not that different from that of most European countries or Brussels. Is it possible to define it clearly? I am not sure. There is a triptych of the European position, according to which China is a partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival. Lately, the latter has been more important than the other two elements because of China’s rise and a more aggressive stand on the global scene.

I think that France agrees with this stance. Its position on Taiwan is also quite clear – it is in favor of the status quo; it favors a peaceful solution and stability. There are many signs for supporting this position – there was a frigate of French navy at the Taiwan Strait, where very important Chinese military exercises were held at the time when President Macron was leaving China in April. The frigate crossed the border and was asked by the Chinese navy to take another route, but it refused.

Even though the French position is clear, Macron likes to make provocative statements to stir the debate. The problem with the comments he made on the plane – which were reported by Politico and in a greater detail and in a much-nuanced way by French business newspaper Les Echos – was that the timing was terrible. He made those comments just as he was leaving Beijing after a three-day state visit with a lot of red-carpet treatment involved.

Macron had taken an initiative to ask Ursula von der Leyen to accompany him. It was a very good idea compared to the time when Chancellor Scholz, when he visited Beijing in November – it was the first European visit after the long pandemic period. Marcon had actually offered him to go together, but Scholz preferred to go alone because that was his first bilateral visit. Compared to this case, it was a very positive gesture to take the President of the European Commission along. The problem was that he Macron did not really take von der Leyen along, she was not on the plane with him. The French president was there on a state visit, and the European Union is not a state, so the protocol was different.

Since she gave a rather firm speech a few days before the trip, Ursula von der Leyen appeared as the tough one while Macron as the softer one. The differences in the protocol treatment by the Chinese to both of these politicians appeared to be a sanction for von der Leyen’ firm and clear statement. The whole thing was a little bit ambiguous – and yet clear enough.

On top of it, President Macron gave the interviews on the plane back to Paris, which were ill formulated, which were very badly received in the West. There was too much ambiguity in the way he talked about the United States and Taiwan in particular. He said that the European Union should not be caught in conflicts that are not ours. But it is very difficult to say that Taiwan is not our conflict because if things go wrong over Taiwan, it will be our conflict too.

LJ: What was the reasoning behind these statements? Were they meant only to stir controversy?

SK: At first, the reaction of some of people was that President Macron is doing again something similar to his controversial “NATO is a brain-dead organization” statement, as he put it in 2019. In retrospect, that comment had a positive impact because it really stirred up the debate. Of course, NATO today is very strong – and France is very happy being a part of such a strong alliance. But the recent situation was not the same.

A couple of days later, when Macron went with a visit to the Netherlands, he did correct his statements. When questioned by journalists, he had to state France’s position on China and Taiwan much more clearly. This shows that his original comments were not so well calculated.

Unfortunately, what got lost in that controversy was Macron’s stance on strategic autonomy. I think that his point is that Europe should not be equidistant between the United States and China but instead it should have autonomy within the Western bloc.

The war in Ukraine has accentuated the trend of two blocs – the Western block and Russia, which is being pushed into China’s arms. Within the Western alliance, Europe should have more autonomy to assert its identity in a better way and to be able to defend itself. The Russian aggression in Ukraine has shown that Europe is unable to do this. Without the United States Europe would not be able to defend itself against Russia, which would put Ukraine in a much more difficult position than it is today.

Emmanuel Macron is not denying this. He spoke to President Biden before he left for China, and again to correct some of the misunderstandings after he came back. He argues that the United States are better off with a stronger Europe, as it makes the alliance stronger, but he should state this in a much clearer way, which he fails to do.

The blunder he made has encouraged the adversaries of strategic autonomy to speak up. Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki went to Washington and immediately attacked France and Germany – which is not a very nice thing to do when you go to the United States, but that is a different story.

LJ: Does the French establishment really believe that Europe should disentangle from the United States?

SK: There are many aspects to this debate. First, there is the ‘French element’. Of course, it would be much better if other people besides Macron defended strategic autonomy. Some officials in Brussels are doing that (for instance, Joseph Borrell or Thierry Breton). Breton is, of course, French, but he is doing that in an interesting way because he touches on industrial autonomy.

Certainly, when Macron talks about strategic autonomy, there is always the suspicion that because France has a tradition of being an ally that is not aligned with the United States and some EU member states in Central Europe and the Baltic states. Meanwhile, France is, actually, quite a strong military ally to the U.S. but that is a different story.

An interesting debate happening at the moment deals with the production of ammunition for Ukraine. Now, a particular emphasis is being put on the production of ammunition (which Ukraine needs really badly) because there is a shortage of ammunition produced in Europe. The European Peace Facility (EPF) has been used to reimburse member states for their military assistance to Ukraine. This is European taxpayers’ money put aside to produce ammunition for Ukraine. Logically, you would think that it should go to European industry – and that is what France is pushing for.

This would be a manifestation of strategic autonomy. We would be producing our own weapons for Ukraine, with our own money. The problem is that the European defense industry is, apparently, unable to produce as much ammunition as Ukraine needs, thus it needs to buy it elsewhere (likely from the United States). That is okay, because the emergency situation requires us to deliver ammunition to Ukraine, no matter where it comes from – preferably Europe.

This example illustrates the ongoing debate rather well. Europe should be able to produce its own equipment because the taxpayers are paying for it.

LJ: Will the concept of puissance d’équilibres (balances of power) become an important topic in diplomatic relations? Is the way in which President Macron is communicating a manifestation of this concept?

SK: Personally, I do not think that this concept will go very far. First of all, because it is very difficult to translate, as it refers to balances, in plural, therefore in English it is not exactly the perfect translation. This already shows that it is not a very clear concept. The concept of strategic autonomy is neither that popular at the moment, but at least it can be translated or adapted to other concepts – like European sovereignty, strategic responsibility, etc. There are several expressions which are more palatable to other languages. For instance, in German, ‘autonomy’ is not that popular because it is closer to ‘autocracy’, so the Germans prefer talking about ‘strategic sovereignty’. Therefore, the concept of strategic autonomy is easier to understand.

Meanwhile, ‘balances of power’ is more confusing – who is balancing and what? Is France alone supposed to be a balancing power? Of course, it is too small for this task. Is it Europe as a whole? This would require bringing allies and coalitions closer to this concept, which is not happening. This is why I do not think this concept will go very far.

LJ: Can any bridges be built between France and Poland in light of Poland having been violating he rule of law?

SK: I do not know how one can be in favor of a united Europe while at the same time attacking your partners (like France or Germany) all the time. It is a difficult situation to understand. I am aware that it is the election year in Poland, which further complicates things, but there are so many huge challenges waiting for the European Union (like enlargement with Ukraine, Moldova, and the Western Balkans) that we cannot be fighting with each other. It is a recipe for a disaster.

The rhetoric should be lowered, and everyone should have a very serious look at the future of the European Union and what our common interest is. Poland’s interest is in being a part of Europe. The idea of shifting the center of gravity to the east is not that simple. There is a new dynamic, of course, but this does not mean that the power is simply being shifted eastwards. We have to work on this new dynamic together – France, Germany, Poland, and the Baltic states. We need to take this seriously, try to be more creative and open. Reviving the concept of old Europe and new Europe is very anachronistic – it is not adapted to the present day.

Find out more about the guest:

This podcast is produced by the European Liberal Forum in collaboration with Movimento Liberal Social and Fundacja Liberté!, with the financial support of the European Parliament. Neither the European Parliament nor the European Liberal Forum are responsible for the content or for any use that be made of it.

European Liberal Forum