On the eve of Emmanuel Macron’s remarks to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, on Wednesday, rumors were circulating that some of the parliamentary groups were reshuffling their speakers to use their time at the podium to critique the French president. The rumors weren’t wrong.
What is ordinarily a staid formality for a head of state to mark his country’s assumption of the six-month rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union descended into nearly four hours of often bare-knuckle campaigning in what promises to be a bruising French presidential race this spring. The dust-up followed Macron’s speech outlining a particularly muscular—and particularly French—vision of the EU, one with, among other ambitious goals, a common defense against illegal immigration and security threats.
As concern grows that Russian President Vladimir Putin may be planning a further invasion of Ukraine, Macron seemed to splinter U.S.-Europe solidarity by calling for a return to four-party negotiations between France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine. That recipe, the “Normandy format,” was the initial European response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2014.
“Sovereignty is freedom,” Macron told the assembly. “It is at the heart of our European project. It is also a response to the destabilizations at work on our continent.”
He went on to say that Europeans should work this out among themselves before sharing it with their allies in NATO and then proposing it to Russia for negotiation. Washington has been calling for a unified approach among NATO allies, which includes 21 of the 27 EU member states, in addressing the threat Ukraine feels from Moscow as Russia has amassed more than 100,000 troops on its border.
The Élysée, the French presidential palace, has begun walking back some of his comments, following a hurried call late Wednesday between Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign-policy chief; U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken; and NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, in which they agreed on the need for a “strong, clear and united transatlantic front.”
“That’s why the United States and our allies and partners in Europe have been so focused on what’s happening in Ukraine,” Blinken said on a tour of Europe this week. “It’s bigger than a conflict between two countries. It’s bigger than Russia and NATO. It’s a crisis with global consequences, and it requires global attention and action.” Blinken, who was in Ukraine on Wednesday and will meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in Geneva on Friday, said the United States will continue to work with allies and partners throughout the international community.
But in Strasbourg, Macron went further in terms of Europe’s autonomy. He dedicated France’s six-month leadership of the EU Council in setting the European agenda to, among other things, formulating a real strategy in terms of industry, defense, and technological independence and making its voice heard on the issues of “strategic armaments, conventional arms control, transparency of military activities, and respect for the sovereignty of all European states, regardless of their histories.”
Macron, not unusually for a French president, has been signaling for years his desire for greater European sovereignty and “strategic autonomy”—his code for greater independence from U.S. security policy. He originally sketched out his vision of a powerful and sovereign Europe at the start of his term, in a speech he gave at the Sorbonne in 2017, when he began by saying that anyone who was already tired of hearing him talk about Europe would just have to get used to it.
Macron has known since then that his reelection campaign would occur during his country’s turn at setting the EU agenda. But hitching his campaign to the EU’s flag is both a risk and an opportunity for the French president.