The French president projected a vision of a Europe with new military power at the Munich Security Conference. As the only nuclear power in the EU, he also foresaw greater European sovereignty.
"We cannot always go through the United States, no, we have to think in a European way as well," French President Emmanuel Macron said on stage at the Munich Security Conference (MSC) on Saturday as he continued a theme of his presidency: projecting bold European sovereignty onto the international stage.
He was referring specifically to Europe's nuclear assets, pointing out a key difference to the Cold War era when Europe's nuclear shield was primarily coordinated by the US. "Now we have to be able to say clearly that if we want a sovereign Europe, if we want to protect our citizens, then we do need to look at that aspect, also with a view to Germany," he said. To show his commitment, Macron has already invited Germany to take part in a strategic dialogue over France's nuclear weapon policy.
The UK's exit from the European Union has shifted added responsibility onto France. Though the UK and France are of course still NATO partners, along with the US and Germany, France is now the only nuclear power in the EU, which leaves the Paris government balancing its nuclear defense strategy between, as Macron put it, "the ambitions of NATO and Europe."
Two pillars, but a sovereign Europe
During an hour-long Q&A session hosted by MSC chairperson Wolfgang Ischinger, Macron said he was "convinced that we need a much stronger Europe in defense."
But he was careful to correct what he saw as a misunderstanding: Greater European military cooperation, which was necessary "due to reasons of sovereignty," was "not a project against NATO or instead of NATO." "I've said it before: Common security in Europe has two pillars, and one of these pillars is NATO and the other one is a Europe of defense," he said.
Ian Bremmer, president of the think tank Eurasia Group, had a skeptical take on Macron's big plans, given that the theme of this year's MSC is "West-Lessness," that is, the uncertainty over what role the West wants to play. "The Americans don't know what they want to do in terms of global security," he told DW's Michaela Küfner. "The Europeans don't know what they're remotely capable of: replacing or supplementing any of that role. Macron is largely playing a domestic political game, but he doesn't have a line with the Germans on that."
"This is not the end of the West, but it's really much weaker and more divided than has been historically," Bremmer added. "The Russians and the Chinese aren't as strong, but they know what they're doing, right?"
While Macron believed Europe required "the ability to act" independently, he felt nuclear issues needed to be managed in cooperation with NATO. "In this framework, we're willing to conduct joint exercises," he said. "Because the goal of that is a joint strategic culture."
Though he acknowledged that Europe and the US shared many values ("this is why we fought numerous wars together"), he said it was clear that Europe and the US also had different interests.
"We need some freedom of action in Europe," he told MSC delegates. "We need to develop our own strategy. We don't have the same geographic conditions (as the US), not the same ideas about social equilibrium, about social welfare. There are ideals we have to defend. Mediterranean policy: that is a European thing, not a trans-Atlantic thing, and the same goes for Russia — we need a European policy, not just a trans-Atlantic policy."
The theme of European strength was taken up in Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's speech on Saturday. The German defense minister said she "completely agreed" with Macron.
"We have joint instruments and joint interests, let's finally create a joint political will!" Kramp-Karrenbauer told the MSC's main chamber. "I want the effect of German and European security and defense policy to be greater, our actions to be better coordinated internationally, and more clearly visible."
She even proposed one way in which this might be brought about: a joint EU military strategy for the Strait of Hormuz, independent of the US policy of "maximum pressure" on Iran.
Speaking to DW after Macron's Q&A, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas also insisted that now, with the growing confrontation between the US and China, it was more vital than ever that the EU "speak with one voice." "We want to strengthen Europe's pillar in NATO," he said.
'I'm not a man of frustration'
There was a notable effort to assuage some of the friction between France and Germany in recent years, particularly over what many saw as Germany's failure to respond to Macron's famous 2017 "Sorbonne speech" about his vision for Europe.
Read more: How does Germany contribute to NATO?
On Saturday, the French president adopted an easy attitude over the state of bilateral relations. "I'm not a man of frustration, you know," he joked. "I remember several approaches or proposals made by Germans years or decades ago waiting for French answers. We have a story of proposals waiting for answers."
He then pointed to all the progress that had been made on Franco-German military cooperation over the last few years, such as the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) and the Main Ground Combat System (MGCS): "We launched a series of bilateral approaches, and we launched a series of new initiatives on a European scale," he said.
"I think the big question we have now together is the magnitude of the answer, and the speediness," he added.
Again, though, Bremmer of the Eurasia Group, sounded a skeptical tone: "If you ask who's the most important leader that's actually speaking on this stage? It was Macron. That's not the future of the West, right?" he said. "It's pretty clear the Germans have the much stronger economy. They're the ones that ultimately stand up and benefit the most from the EU. And yet Germany itself is a little bit softer and a little bit less capable of providing that role with their own leadership than they have been over the past years."