1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Is the French president's vision for Europe realistic?

April 13, 2023

Emmanuel Macron's comments on Taiwan caused a stir. They also drew attention to EU strategic autonomy, a pet project he has promoted for years. But how realistic is it?

French President Emmanuel Macron holding a speech in The Hague, Netherlands,  Tuesday, April 11
French President Emmanuel Macron presenting his vision for Europe in The Hague, Netherlands, on April 11 Image: Robin van Lonkhuijsen/ANP/IMAGO

It has been six years since French President Emmanuel Macron publicly discussed the concept of sovereignty in the European Union (EU) during a speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris. In the EU, the term strategic autonomy is more often used when speaking of the idea, which has been around for a while. The concept basically means the ability to act autonomously and independently of other countries in strategically important areas, as the EU Parliament's Think Tank explains.

On the return flight of his recent China visit, the French president again spoke with international media about the concept. During the interview he made remarks about Taiwan, causing a stir in the United States and Europe. His words were understood to be a call for the EU to reduce its dependence on the US and a warning against being drawn into a crisis over Taiwan.

Earlier this week, the French president gave another sampling of his vision for a sovereign Europe. In a speech in The Hague, Netherlands, on Tuesday, Macron focused on the economic side of the strategic autonomy concept. But can his ideas really be implemented?    

EU dependent on China for green transition

Macron's model of economic sovereignty is based on the five pillars of competitiveness, industrial policy, protection of markets, reciprocity in trade relations, and cooperation.

One of his central ideas is that the EU should continue producing competitive, best-in-class products while working together closely throughout the bloc. Macron also pointed out the necessity of a common industrial policy, which would strengthen markets in areas such as net-zero industry or the production of microchips.

The French president also stressed that critical technologies necessary for meeting Europe's climate goals should be produced in the EU.

France's Macron calls European sovereignty 'a necessity'

Currently, the production of those technologies, as well as the rare earths needed for digital and green transitioning, all come from China, as Carme Colomina told DW. A senior research fellow at the publicly funded Barcelona Centre for International Affairs, Colomina says the EU is dependent on China when it comes to climate change. 

To combat that fact, the EU Commission recently proposed a new law regulating critical raw materials. Among the raw materials in question are rare earths needed for the magnets in wind turbines, as well as lithium, cobalt, nickel for battery manufacturing, and silicone for semi-conductors. The Commission's proposals are now being discussed in the EU Parliament and among EU member states.

Acknowledging the newly proposed strategies, Colomina wonders whether they can actually be implemented fast enough to be effective. She pointed out that they come at a time when "dependencies are already being built." 

EU dependent on the US for security

The concept of strategic autonomy also comprises a security dimension. Back in 2017, Emmanuel Macron began championing the establishment of a joint European intervention force, a common defense budget, and a joint doctrine for action.

Last March, one month after the Russian invasion in Ukraine, European leaders picked up the idea of European sovereignty. They declared a desire to bolster defense capabilities and increase their capacity to act autonomously while also fully respecting their NATO obligations. Since the war began, EU countries have increased defense spending and supported Ukraine with arms and ammunition

Pile of ammunition at artillery position near Bachmut (File).
EU countries have increased military spending and supplied arms to Ukraine since Russia invadedImage: Narciso Contreras/AA/picture alliance

For Colomina, Emmanuel Macron is really one of the strongest leaders behind the idea of closer defense cooperation. She thinks he understands European sovereignty as a means to enabling the EU to chart its own path. 

But Benjamin Tallis, a researcher at the German Council of Foreign Relations, says not only is the path being pitched unrealistic, it is also "highly undesirable." For Tallis, the notion of autonomy in international relations is a "myth." He contends that what Emmanuel Macron really means is "more autonomy from the US."

Tallis believes this is dangerous for the continent: "Europe is really lacking in capabilities needed to defend itself, but also to compete in the world in the way that Macron's strategic autonomy agenda seems to imply." On paper, he told DW, Europe has impressive numbers of tanks and soldiers but it would lack so-called strategic enablers to get them into place should the bloc go it alone. The senior researcher also referred to the large US nuclear arsenal that has served as a security guarantee of last resort and deterrence against other nuclear powers.

Lack of a European worldview 

Immediately following Macron's remarks, several international politicians — perhaps most prominently, Marco Rubio, a former presidential candidate and current Republican Senator from Florida  — openly asked whether he had been speaking on behalf of the European Union when he made them.

Before a trip to the US on Monday, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the alliance with the US was an "absolute foundation" for the European Union. The EU Commission declined to comment on Macron's Taiwan remarks.

Portrait of Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki
Polish Prime Minister Morawiecki called the EU's alliance with the US 'fundamental' Image: Piotr Nowak/PAP/picture alliance

Macron certainly doesn't speak for Europe, according to Tallis. In his opinion, the underlying problem with the idea of European strategic autonomy is that Europe does not even exist on a strategic level, nor is there consensus on an EU worldview.

Tallis speaks of a clear strip of countries like Finland, Estonia, the Czech Republic and Poland as wanting to double down on the systemic competition between autocracies and democracies.

He said Germany's Chancellor Olaf Scholz wants to hold on to the "world of yesterday" that existed before Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, and is trying to preserve a global trading system that includes China.

Macron, on the other hand, seems to be trying to position France as a great power by attempting to position Europe as one — and then pretending France's interests are the same as Europe's.

In the end, Tallis claims Macron's plan would undermine Europe strategically and further divide its members. Colomina points to a strong traditional divide among member states — between Europeanists in favor of more Europe, and Atlanticists in favor of closer ties to the US.

The dilemma is at the EU's very core, she says, and it was clear that it was merely a matter of time before it would reemerge.

Emmanuel Macron, it seems, may also be aware that he might not get his way when it comes to strategic autonomy. He concluded his speech in The Hague with the words, "I am a dreamer."

Edited by Jon Shelton

DW Mitarbeiterin Lucia Schulten
Lucia Schulten Brussels Correspondent