Erik BrattbergDirector of the Europe Program and fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
No doubt. With a lame-duck Chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, a new British Prime Minister absorbed by the Brexit endgame mess, and a turbulent Washington under U.S. President Donald Trump, French President Emmanuel Macron has seized the vacuum to position himself as Europe’s de facto foreign policy leader.
Macron’s flurry of recent diplomatic activities, such as attempting to broker talks between Russia and Ukraine and between Iran and the United States, are certainly impressive, but so far he does not have much to show for. On top of these issues, Macron has also emerged as the firmest European leader when it comes to dealing with China, a country he is also planning to visit in November.
While Macron’s foreign policy leadership is welcome—especially because few other European leaders have either the vision or clout right now—he must still resist the temptation of going it alone lest suspicions should grow in other EU capitals about France’s aims.
To be successful, Macron must coordinate his diplomatic outreach more closely with other EU leaders. For example, many capitals in the Nordic-Baltic region and Central and Eastern Europe are concerned about the Élysée’s plans of seeking rapprochement with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Here, Macron can take a cue from his own playbook of “Europeanizing” his dealings with Chinese President Xi Jinping, like when he invited European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Merkel to join their summit in Paris in March 2019.
Steven ErlangerChief Diplomatic Correspondent for Europe at the New York Times
Emmanuel Macron loves to talk. Castro-like in his loquaciousness, no one seems able to rein him in. He loves to talk about real problems, too: fractures in the European Union, the stagnation of the European economy, the problems with Russia and China.
But rapidly tossing out ideas does not a leader make.
Results matter, too, and so far, the results on foreign affairs have been paltry. Not that his effort to get Trump and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani talking is a bad idea, but it rather misses the point: the deeper political agonies of the relationship. Similarly with reviving the Minsk agreement on conflict resolution in eastern Ukraine: an excellent idea, but is Macron too naive about Putin’s interests and tactics? (Of course the French say no, but one may wonder.)
He has also misread and mismanaged the relationship with Germany and with the powerful economies of Europe’s North, and he has annoyed some of those he needs to get his proposals implemented. He did well in European and international bank jobs, but his success in personnel hardly guarantees policy success.
So, all to play for. He may be Europe’s foreign policy leader by default, but that implies that Europe actually has a foreign policy.
François HeisbourgSenior adviser at the International Institute for Strategic Studies
Since the French Fifth Republic began some sixty years ago, France has been punching above its weight, politically and strategically. This has been accomplished by defining clear objectives, using all tools to fulfill them—including the use of force—and drawing on the collective throw weight of the European community and on France’s permanent membership of the UN Security Council when this could help achieve French aims.
Given France’s institutional DNA, external policy is orchestrated at the presidential level and tends to be played up rather than toned down in the court of public opinion. In this sense, Macron is walking in the footsteps of his seven predecessors. However, he has some specific advantages, even as France is—like Europe overall—in relative decline.
Macron’s freshness, the energy of youth, and his tendency to take open responsibility rather than to hide behind others have helped him.
The bigger part of the story, however, is that he is leading by default. A lame-duck chancellor and paralyzed grand coalition in Germany, a Brexit-obsessed Britain, an uncertain Italy, and a rudderless Spain all make Macron the go-to leader of Europe, while the United States has lost the political authority to lead the West.
Josef JanningHead of the Berlin Office and Senior Policy Fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations
Emmanuel Macron is a leader by default. Nobody else with clout would challenge his role: Britain has in fact abdicated as a European power, Germany does not want to lead but prefers minuscule manipulation of the status quo, Italy and Spain are preoccupied with forming governments, and the capable smaller EU member states lack a common agenda and policy coordination.
The European Commission is a lame duck since spring 2019, though even prior to that the EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, had not had much success in bringing the EU Foreign Affairs Council behind her ideas. As things stand, none of these factors will see major change soon.
Macron, on the other hand, has important incentives to become active. With the pace of domestic reform crippled by the yellow vest protests, and high flying ideas about eurozone reform and the “refounding of Europe” stuck, foreign policy is the one terrain left to live out his maverick presidency. So he is putting his mark on issues formerly “owned” by others—be it Italy’s handling of Libya, Germany’s relationship with Russia, or Britain’s influence on the Iran dossier.
Macron believes a passive or weak Europe will diminish the relevance of France in international affairs, and he still believes France could pull the EU along. While his belief in the former is good news for Europe, his confidence in the latter could be in for a hard landing.
Sylvie KauffmannEditorial Director and Columnist at Le Monde
Why “new”? Has Europe ever had a foreign policy leader? Does Europe have a foreign policy? It should.
But until it does have one, Macron thinks he should take the initiative, because no one else does. He has a vision. He is convinced that time is running out for Europe on the global scene and that the EU’s decisionmaking process is too slow. He wants to shake the system. So he tries to lead. Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not.
He led in March when he invited Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker to join him to meet with Xi Jinping during the Chinese leader’s bilateral visit to Paris. He led at the European Council, when it chose the new heads of the EU’s institutions in July, by effectively killing the Spitzenkandidat system and then pushing candidates that would serve not only France’s interests, but others’ as well. He led at the G7 in Biarritz in August.
With Russia, it will be more difficult—because it is Putin, and because Macron did not bother to bring a few friends along. This is the downside of Macron’s strategy: speed. It doesn’t sit well with consulting allies, which takes time. He should know that a French leader who wants to lead is always regarded with suspicion in Europe.
Anna-Liina KauhanenGermany correspondent at Helsingin Sanomat
Emmanuel Macron is definitely one of the most interesting politicians in Europe. The way he uses populism against the populists shows his talent—and populism.
Macron speaks to and acts directly with the people. We have seen this with the yellow vest movement and also with Macron’s European-wide op-ed, in which he urged building a revived EU. Macron has important goals, and he really has put the idea of a “protective EU” at the center of his EU policy.
The French president is not alone, but his style is beyond comparison. What a show he put up at the latest G7 summit in France!
Macron is enjoying his new role, but does this make him a new foreign policy leader in Europe? Yes and no. Among journalists, we had hoped so, as Merkel has chosen to keep such a low profile lately.
There are good reasons to support France’s initiatives, but Macron’s almost manic actions may also raise exaggerated expectations.
Stefan LehneVisiting Scholar at Carnegie Europe
In foreign policy, the French president faces far fewer internal constraints than most democratic leaders. He can still operate like an eighteenth-century king. With ideas and energy, of which he has plenty, Macron can do a lot. Also, these days there is not much competition in Europe. Angela Merkel is in the twilight zone of her career, Britain is blocked by Brexit, Italy is hampered by dysfunctional coalitions, and Spain is unable to put a durable government together.
The trouble is that France no longer carries the political or economic weight to be a top global actor. And so many French initiatives don’t go beyond beautifully arranged meetings in Paris.
The solution would be to marry French international ambitions with the collective weight of the EU. But apart from defense policy, where he has showed real leadership, Macron’s record in this regard has been disappointing. France offered little support to the EU foreign policy chief or to the European External Action Service and displayed little interest in the tedious work of building consensus in the Foreign Affairs Council. As a result, while the external challenges steadily increased, EU foreign policy lost momentum.
Now would be a good time to change this approach. Macron has been instrumental in putting the new EU leadership team together. Many of the key actors are his close allies. If he would now invest some of his energies in revitalizing EU foreign policy, both Europe and France would benefit greatly.
Denis MacshaneSenior Adviser at Avisa Partners
It is not that Macron is deciding EU foreign policy, but he seems to be the only EU leader with any ideas on foreign policy at all.
Angela Merkel has shrunk back into curating a weakening German economy and society. German foreign policy from 1946 to 2016 was to hug America close. Trump has killed that.
Brexit Britain has given up geopolitics. Italy and Spain are consumed by domestic politics. Poland can only think Russia.
So that leaves Macron. He cozies up to Putin, he tells the Western Balkans they will have to wait years before joining Europe, he denounces the “hydra of Islamist terrorism,” and demands tough action on immigration.
But is this foreign or domestic policy? Macron’s great fear is the disenchantment of France with his presidency—strangely reminiscent of how France fell out of love forty years ago with a similar young, reforming, technocratic president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.
Above all, he wants to ensure French far-right leader Marine Le Pen has no openings. So he adopts her policy of friendship with Putin, says the Muslim populations of the partly or majority-Muslim Western Balkan states cannot join Europe, and ratchets up rhetoric on immigration and Islamism.
This is domestic politics barely disguised as foreign policy.
Sophie PedderParis Bureau Chief at the Economist
Not yet. But he could be.
Why? Europe faces a diplomatic-leadership gap. Britain is distracted from world affairs by Brexit. Angela Merkel is weakened by domestic difficulties. Faced with a volatile United States and assertive China, Europe needs a strong strategic voice. Few other liberal-democratic leaders are willing—or able—to supply it.
Macron helped secure a broadly France-friendly European Commission (and put French Christine Lagarde at the helm of the European Central Bank), which will help him push his European agenda. Former French obsessions—tackling tech giants, screening Chinese investment, reinforcing European defense—are becoming a form of new “Euro-orthodoxy.”
Two years on, Macron has established personal contacts and learned some hard lessons about the limits to diplomatic ambition. This may still lead to overreach and disappointment. But Paris is currently a hub of diplomatic activity, with France notably leading European efforts to de-escalate U.S.-Iran tensions.
Of course, Macron’s style still irritates many fellow Europeans. His Gaullist pretensions will be resisted in Poland and the Baltics, particularly over his “Russia reset.” Trump-taming has yet to yield results. And a hyper-ambitious France will always be tempered by a hyper-cautious Germany. But Macron has ideas, does not shy away from strategic thinking, and is willing to take diplomatic risks to defend Europe’s interests.
Not many rival aspirant European leaders can claim as much.
Paul TaylorContributing Editor at Politico Europe
Emmanuel Macron has stepped into a vacuum to launch a series of foreign policy initiatives in the name of Europe but in keeping with traditional French priorities. With Angela Merkel in her twilight years, Britain sidelined by Brexit, Italy consumed by domestic turmoil, and EU institutions in limbo in a handover year, the French president’s diplomacy is the only game in town.
In a world of growing great-power rivalry and fading multilateral order, Macron is right to argue that to sit at the table, Europe must either act more like a power itself or end up on the menu.
Few in Europe would contest his effort to broker a new deal between the United States and Iran, given the ghastly alternatives. His attempt to bring Putin in from the cold is more divisive, since Moscow has yet to make substantial concessions in Ukraine beyond exchanging a few captives. French pretensions to be acting on Europe’s behalf are contested fiercely in Warsaw, Vilnius, and Stockholm, and sotto voce in Berlin.
Macron is right to press for greater European ambition in defense, and to keep the UK tied closely to Europe in security terms after Brexit.
But to succeed, he needs to be more inclusive of other European partners, act less imperiously, and include the EU institutions in his diplomacy.