For French President Emmanuel Macron, “the number-one priority in relations with the new US administration” is clear: to boost “results-oriented multilateralism.”
That was the first of a three-pillar agenda for a reinvigorated transatlantic relationship that Macron revealed at an Atlantic Council Front Page event to mark the official launch of the Council’s new Europe Center. His other two pillars involve the United States and Europe coordinating more closely on addressing regional crises in the Middle East, Indo-Pacific, and Africa; and forge new, innovative partnerships to tackle the defining challenges of our time such as inequality, arms control, and climate change
Over the course of an expansive, one hour and twenty minute conversation, Macron dove into topics ranging from how to think about European strategic autonomy to how best to regulate speech on social media. Below are some of the highlights.
Building US-EU relations back better
- Much work to do: Macron said that “during the last few years, we experienced a sort of dismantling of the existing multilateral frameworks and fora,” even though Europe “worked hard” to preserve them. The major challenges facing the transatlantic community today—including “a pandemic, economic and social crisis, new inequalities, climate change, [and] our democratic issues”—will “require more coordination,” he added. He commended US President Joe Biden for bringing the United States back into the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Paris climate-change agreement. When a “main player… is the one to leave” a multilateral organization, “obviously it does weaken multilateralism,” he observed, and the countries that would benefit from such a situation “push another kind of multilateralism, which is not based on our common values.”
- Improve the relationship by improving yourself: Macron noted that “some players in Europe could be convinced that a realignment of the agenda with [the] new US administration should weaken our strategic autonomy.” As for him? “I don’t believe [for] one second it’s the case.” He noted that trying “to reinvent or restore an actual European sovereignty” has been one of his priorities because of the nationalist direction he observed a number of European countries heading in. “But our actual sovereignty, which means deciding for yourself and being able to decide your own rules and regulation and to be in charge of your own choices, is relevant at the European scale,” he argued, and can help foster a common agenda on shared defense, economic, and technological challenges.
- Beyond Europe’s self-interest: European strategic autonomy, Macron asserted, “is definitely in the interests of the United States… because when you look at the past decades in NATO, the United States was the only one in charge, in a certain way, of our own security. And the burden-sharing, as some of our former and current leaders pushed the concept, was not fair.” He noted that while NATO allies were getting access to the US Army and contracts and materials from the country, it was a “lose-lose approach for European countries” because they weren’t “in charge of [their own] neighborhood.” Macron added that “the more Europe is committed to defend, invest, and be part of the protection of its neighborhood, the more it is important for the United States as well, because this is [fairer] burden-sharing.”
- More than just force: This is “a moment of clarification for NATO,” Macron said. European strategic autonomy could help clarify NATO’s role and value—and emphasize that it is not just “a superstructure to coordinate our armed forces, but a political body to harmonize our choices and to have some political coordination.”
Watch the full event
Today’s unprecedented challenges: the pandemic and democratic crisis
- Democracy under threat: In the wake of events like the US Capitol riots on January 6, Macron sees a “big anthropological change” happening in democratic countries: “violence, hate, [and] xenophobia are back in our societies,” all of which pose grave threats to democratic societies and to the tradeoff at the heart of them: the blessing of democratic freedom in exchange for the responsibility of respecting even those who disagree with you.
- Who gets to cut the digital mic? Macron argued that “social networks are definitely part of the roots” of these worrying trends in democracies, having progressively “changed the deep nature of what the democratic debate should be.” In reference to the decisions by several social-media companies to remove former US President Donald Trump from their platforms, he said, “I don’t want to live in a democracy where… the decision to cut your mic… is decided by a private player, a private social network. I want it to be decided by law voted by your representative or by regulation or governance, democratically discussed and approved by democratic leaders.”
- Multilateralism as an antidote to COVID-19: Macron said that the United States and European Union (EU) can lead a multilateral approach to increase vaccine access for the rest of the world. He explained how, after a call from Group of Twenty (G-20) leaders in March 2020, the World Health Organization, European Commission, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and France jointly launched the ACT-Accelerator Initiative to help African countries “preserve their primary health system, to treat people, and to deal with the economic and social consequences of the pandemic.”
- China’s vaccine diplomacy may be short-sighted: China has been successful in providing vaccine doses and pandemic-related support to other countries, Macron admitted, but while it can appear “more efficient than the multilateral approach” in the short term, “if we have a comprehensive and coordinated approach, I think [in] the very long run we can be more efficient.” That’s because of transparency, he maintained: Countries receiving vaccines, for example, will need to have the right ones for specific variants of the virus, which requires transparent information about the doses and their effectiveness. “I have absolutely no information about the Chinese one,” Macron said.
Who are allies, rivals, adversaries, and partners?
- China: friend or foe? The United States and Europe will need to manage a complex relationship with China, Macron explained: “China is altogether a partner, a competitor, and a systemic rival” on different issues: a partner on climate change, competitor on trade, and rival given its geopolitical strategies and human-rights issues. But if the United States and EU were to be “put in a situation to join all together against China, this is a scenario of the highest possible counterproductivity.” Nor should the EU treat China “as a clear partner” or place itself “at the same distance from the US as from China,” because China is a “systemic rival” and the EU and United States “share the same values.”
- Where interests overlap: Yet with China becoming more involved more with multilateral institutions, and with the United States reengaging as well, there’s incentive to “to try to work all together,” Macron said, adding that he will push for a “P5” summit—featuring the United Nations Security Council’s five permanent members—to re-establish efficient coordination among the world powers. Macron also laid out key topics to engage on with China, including “a bold and efficient climate agenda” and a “global initiative on trade, industry, and intellectual property.”
- There’s technological autonomy too: Another possible area of cooperation: technology. On artificial intelligence, 5G, space, and more, “we have to put ourselves in a situation to cooperate [with China] if we decide” to do so, said Macron, but “we have to avoid in any way [depending] on a 100-percent Chinese solution.”
- Navalny’s sentence—a jab at the world: Macron called Russia’s decision to sentence opposition leader Alexei Navalny to prison “the most obvious way to express sort of irony and disrespect not just for him but for the rest of the world.” He described it as a “huge mistake, even for Russian stability today.” After Navalny’s poisoning, the EU placed sanctions on Russian officials close to Russian President Vladimir Putin. It’s now considering tougher sanctions following the sentencing. “We have to be tough, in full solidarity, which is the case.”
- Not yet time to stop talking: Despite Russia’s aggressive actions against Navalny and other Kremlin critics, Macron noted that “we do need a comprehensive dialogue” with Russia to ensure peace and security for the European continent. Russia is part of Europe from a geographical and historical point of view,” he observed. “It’s impossible to have peace and stability in Europe, especially at our borders today, if you are not in a situation to negotiate with Russia.” He advocated “having a dialogue on cyber aggressivity, obviously on any aggression… in this very sensitive area [including] Ukraine [and] Belarus,” and engaging in arms-control negotiations after the United States left the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty in 2019, leaving Europe “no more protected from” Russian missiles. Macron also said that dialogue with Russia will be crucial for any Western reengagement in the Middle East following Russia’s extensive interventions in the region. “Europeans and Americans, we almost disappeared” from the Middle East, he noted.
- Teamwork on Iran: Macron called Iran “a common challenge for peace and security,” and promised to “do whatever [he] can to support any initiative from the US side to reengage a demanding dialogue” with Tehran. Macron said that he believes in the “need to finalize” a “new negotiation with Iran, and President Biden has a critical role, first because [Iran is] much closer to the nuclear bomb now than they were before the signature of the [Iran nuclear deal] in July of 2015; second, because we have to address, as well, the ballistic-missiles issues; and we have to address the stability of the regime. And this comprehensive agenda needs to be negotiated now because this is the right timing.” The discussions should also include “Saudi Arabia and Israel,” he added.
Katherine Walla is assistant director of editorial at the Atlantic Council.
Read the transcript
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