Whilst European strategic autonomy may be a vision for the longer-term, strategic planning regarding the vulnerability of European infrastructure to external players is essential now. Despite strained relations and differing visions, France and Germany, as the powerhouses of Europe, need to find a way of working together to realise this.
Events of recent weeks suggest that Franco-German discord on security and foreign policy matters may be a consequential side-effect of the UK’s EU withdrawal. Without the presence of the UK as a partner whose views and resources are as consequential in decision-making and forward-planning as their own, the disparity in vision between France and Germany is increasingly clear. Whilst Germany is hampered by internal political woes, Macron has been widely criticised for a singular approach to addressing Europe’s challenges. Macron is understood by many to be keen on realising his own vision for Europe, and impatient to wait for others, such as Germany, to catch up or contribute their thoughts. Blocking the beginning of EU accession talks with North Macedonia is a case in point, as are Macron’s controversial comments that “we are currently experiencing […] the braindeath of NATO”.
The response of Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, German Minister of Defence, to Macron’s NATO comments provides important insight. By her interpretation, Macron wishes to replace NATO, whilst the Germans “want to strengthen it”. She continues that “When France talks about more European cooperation in defence, they’re talking about strategic autonomy. […] France has a different military culture than Germany.”
Strategic autonomy has often been discussed in European foreign policy circles, and with particular earnestness following the election of Donald Trump and the subsequent doubt cast over the American security guarantee. Differing military traditions and ambitions within Europe (as Kramp-Karrenbauer’s comments illustrate) have, however, long impeded the realisation of European security and defence cooperation with the potential to ultimately supercede the role of NATO.
It is, therefore, fair to say that strategic autonomy for Europe is a way off, if on the horizon at all. However, while hard power is undoubtedly important in the current global context, hybrid warfare and trade wars are also consequential. ‘Strategic autonomy’ might not, and indeed ought not, be wholly limited to traditional military means. The purchase and influence which foreign players have over and within national systems matter, as does the strength of Europe as a trading bloc. Europe cooperates most successfully economically and the strength of its trade deals demonstrates that, when united, European states can collectively protect their interests. Norm-setting initiatives such as the GDPR have also proven highly successful in safeguarding European citizens within a largely unregulated global commons.
Macron seems to understand this. Over recent years, he has argued at length that, in order for the EU to remedy the ills besetting it and to remain a global power, national sovereignty must be ceded and collectively pooled in the areas of finance, economics, the environment and immigration, as well as foreign policy and defence. He called for significantly more consideration than his German counterparts before opening European 5G markets to Chinese tech giant Huawei, suggesting vigilance against making Europe more vulnerable to external influence than is absolutely necessary. Germany, by contrast, has seemingly failed to learn from the ongoing saga of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which not only exposes the German economy to potential future Russian interference but has also recently received backlash from Ukraine, alongside criticism and threats of intervention from the Americans.
If France and Germany — the traditional ‘axis’ on which Europe traditionally rotates — are at odds, radical change in European defence policy is unlikely, at least for the short-to-medium term. Nevertheless, Europe should at a minimum aim for strategic prudence, coupled with as much economic and political autonomy as it can manage. Reducing exposure and vulnerability to potentially antagonistic players to the greatest possible degree is integral to achieving this. France and Germany must find a way of seeing eye-to-eye on this, and of prioritising consideration and coordination in matters pertaining to the security of infrastructure across the bloc.
Macron’s methods may leave something to be desired; his independent approach likely prevents his ideas from being fully appreciated, and may even be interpreted as somewhat hypocritical in an ostensibly consensus-driven European context. His intent is sensible, however. Joined-up thought on strategic matters is fundamental for Europe to forge a path to greater autonomy, security and consequence in the global sphere. This will be especially necessary once the UK — arguably the most capable defence power in the EU — exits the bloc. A crucial task — for France, for Germany, and for other European partners — will be to find a way of achieving such joined-up thinking by meeting one another in the middle.
Grace McLoughlin is head of Agora’s Europe programme.