‘Imperious’ Macron tests patience of EU partners
Since his 2017 election victory, French President Emmanuel Macron has never been shy about promoting his desire to reshape Europe — but his go-it-alone diplomacy is testing the patience of some of his EU partners.
From his courting of Russian president Vladimir Putin to his rejection of accession talks for Balkan states and his reluctance to extend the Brexit deadline, Mr Macron’s willingness to ignore the consensus has antagonised even longstanding allies.
Philippe Lamberts, the co-president of the Green/EFA Group in the European Parliament, and a political rival compared Mr Macron with the Star Wars character Emperor Palpatine, accusing the French president of being “drunk on power”.
“It’s someone acting quite imperiously,” said a Brussels diplomat of the 41-year-old Mr Macron.
In a sign of the political tensions at the heart of the EU, Mr Macron’s enemies in the European Parliament this month engineered a humiliating rejection of Sylvie Goulard, his candidate as France’s commissioner in the new EU administration. They are likely to challenge Thierry Breton, his new choice for Brussels, too — potentially giving a further unwelcome headache for Ursula von der Leyen, the incoming European Commission president.
Mr Macron’s approach has even begun to destabilise the Franco-German partnership that has always been at the core of the EU. Without always keeping German Chancellor Angela Merkel in the loop, he has courted Russia and Ukraine to try to broker peace, and done the same with Iran and the US in pursuit of a new deal to curb Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
The irritants in the Franco-German relationship are therefore piling up, according to Daniela Schwarzer of the German Council on Foreign Relations.
When Mr Macron made his overtures to Mr Putin in the summer and called for a new EU approach to Russia, “a lot of people said he didn’t even inform us ahead of time”, she said. “It seemed to be part of an emerging pattern of unilateral actions.”
French officials and diplomats accept that Mr Macron is seen as arrogant by other Europeans — one said he had “a way of lecturing the others which is very French, and that annoys them”. But they defend what another called his “combative position” on Europe and say he is more consistent on matters such as Brexit (no extension without a good reason) and EU enlargement (deepen integration of the existing EU before adding new members) than rivals give him credit for.
Mr Macron models himself on Charles de Gaulle, and there are echoes in his behaviour of the wartime leader’s pompous style that so infuriated Winston Churchill.
“Our line is not for some kind of splendid Gaullo-Napoleonic isolation,” insisted one Elysée official this week. “It’s true that Macron has a voice that is stronger and louder [than those of other EU leaders]. Yet it’s not to annoy his partners, but because he has a vision . . . The system must sometimes be shaken up a bit.”
Mr Macron is the most visible EU leader in foreign policy these days not just because he is eager to push his own agenda, but because there are no obvious alternatives. The UK is planning to abandon the EU within months, leaving UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson almost entirely focused on Brexit, while Ms Merkel is nearing the end of her political career.
“Paris increasingly sees Berlin as in a state of political paralysis, inward-looking, with a fragile coalition,” said Ms Schwarzer.
One former French diplomat who has worked with Mr Macron said: “The tête-à-tête between France and Germany is never easy and we had a counterweight which for a long time was Britain. No more Britain. So we thought, Italy as a founding EU member could be part of the puzzle, but it didn’t work because of where Italy is at the moment. Plus Merkel is disappearing into the dustbin of history. So we are alone.”
Even critics of the French president say it is an overstatement to suggest he always acts unilaterally and never gives ground. His overtures to Russia drew wider support, including from Finland, holder of the EU’s rotating presidency, while he did eventually move into line on the Brexit extension.
Echoing the role Britain sometimes played in EU debates, Mr Macron’s willingness to take the heat has also offered valuable cover for countries that quietly support his views but prefer to be less vocal. The focus on France over enlargement took scrutiny away from Dutch and Danish opposition to starting accession talks with Albania.
Even so, Mr Macron is under pressure from his EU partners to take a more consultative approach.
One EU diplomat said the intense French resistance to the Brexit extension was “not an isolated incident”, but part of a pattern. “It could hamper the EU’s ability to take decisions if one country stands in its own corner,” the diplomat said.
Mr Lamberts, the MEP, added: “You don’t shape Europe by bullying Europe, you shape Europe by building alliances.”