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New Atlanticist April 29, 2024

‘Our Europe is mortal. It can die.’ Decoding Macron’s Sorbonne speech.

By Gérard Araud

In 2017, just after being elected, French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech at the Sorbonne to push for an ambitious European agenda. It was centered around the concept of a “sovereign Europe” in different fields. While hardly any of its proposals have come to fruition, it is remarkable that, seven years later, all the issues it raised are still on the table. Obviously, the speech was not off the mark. Nevertheless, the world has changed a great deal since 2017. There was Brexit, the COVID-19 pandemic, and Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine. So, the speech Macron delivered, again at the Sorbonne, on April 25 was an opportunity to set out his vision of how to actualize his previous pronouncements.

This speech may also be read as a signaling exercise to shape the agenda of the next European Union (EU) political cycle of 2024-2029, the term of the next European Commission and European Parliament.

On economic issues, after the grim diagnosis that the EU is “falling behind,” Macron used his speech to develop four types of proposals:

  1. The deepening of the single market, with a reference to the report former Italian Prime Minister Enrico Letta presented to the Commission a week earlier, but also with a call for the loosening of competition rules in some cases; 
  2. An EU industrial policy to support research and development, nuclear energy, and strategic sectors, supported by a Buy European Act;
  3. Reform of EU trade policy on the basis of strong environmental and social standards, with an expression of support for the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) with Canada but opposition to the agreement with the South American trade bloc MERCOSUR;
  4. The mobilization of private investments through new financial instruments, including new resources and mutualized EU debt.

It’s a very French agenda, especially with its protectionist and anticompetition undertones. It will be contested and limited by northern European countries, but the Letta report and what is known of the upcoming report on competitiveness by former Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi show that the tone of the conversation within the EU about trade and competitiveness is changing. Macron’s argument that the “two leading international powers have decided to stop respecting the rules of trade”—which put China and the United States on an equal footing—is meeting a growing echo in Europe. Former US President Donald Trump’s protectionism and current President Joe Biden’s 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, along with the dramatic Chinese breakthrough in the car industry, have made an impact in public opinion and the business community in Europe. In Brussels, the free-trade diehards still have the upper hand but are on the defensive.

On security issues, Macron said that “the days of Europe . . . relying on the US for security are over.” He added that

“the rules of the game have changed. And the fact that war has returned to European soil, and that it is being waged by a nuclear-armed power, changes everything. The very fact that Iran is on the verge of acquiring nuclear weapons changes everything.”

Macron has no illusions about the future of US commitment to European security. Therefore, he thinks Europe should be prepared for US disengagement—brutal with Trump, gradual with Biden. He described Europe’s dire strategic environment and the fact that the EU has only started to adjust to it. He has been announcing it for seven years without much result among EU member states or in French public opinion. What he calls for now is for Europe to dramatically increase European military capabilities with common borrowing, which is a quasi-taboo topic in some northern European countries. “This is why,” Maron explained, “in the coming months, I will be inviting all our partners to help build this European defense initiative, which must first and foremost be a strategic concept from which we will then derive the relevant capabilities.” He added several low-key proposals, including common training of officers and a small rapid reaction force, based on ideas that have been floating around for some time (and which in no way change the current paradigm).

Macron went on to explain that “nuclear deterrence is at the heart of France’s defense strategy. It is therefore an essential element in the defense of the European continent. It is thanks to this credible defense that we will be able to build the security guarantees expected by all our partners.” In saying this, however, he didn’t break new ground, since the European dimension of French nuclear deterrence has appeared in French doctrine as far back as 1972.

In all, Macron captured the essence of the issues, but he elicited expectations that he will never meet. In a sense, he is a Cassandra doomed to fail. France has limited means and other member states have different visions, especially in economic and financial matters. Indeed, Macron’s speech clearly was a French agenda for Europe—more defense, more investment and innovation, fewer regulations, different competition rules. Furthermore, it set Europe out as a partner but also, repeatedly, as a competitor of the United States. He underscored that the EU shouldn’t be “the vassal of the United States,” and that “Europe is not just a piece of the West, but a continent-world that thinks about its universality.” This won’t be greeted positively in some European capitals.

In the end, it might not have been a new vision but, in a sense, the speech’s most important message was a tone of urgency, also with a view to the upcoming EU elections. “Our Europe is mortal,” Macron said. “It can die, and it all depends on our choices.” With this urgency, Macron encouraged the EU to stop being naïve and take risks. The world has become more competitive and ruthless, and the EU is the only power still playing by the book. The EU has lagged in adapting to the ongoing paradigm shifts in growth, trade, defense, security, climate, and regulation. “The awakening is too slow, too weak in the face of the generalized rearmament of the world.” He warned that “uninhibited regional forces” are demonstrating their capabilities—mentioning Russia and Iran, but not China—and that “Europe is surrounded.”

As usual with Macron, the nearly two-hour speech was too long and too French in its tone and in its abstraction. It touched on too many issues, and it lacked implementation specifics. In this sense, it may feed some irony and skepticism. But in today’s EU, Macron is the only leader capable of giving a speech that is ambitious and comprehensive. He is setting the coming EU agenda, but he knows he will not get everything he wants. Far from it. In a sense, he is fulfilling the traditional French role in the EU, arrogantly ruffling feathers and providing ideas.

Gérard Araud is a distinguished fellow with the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, where he works on the future of Europe, EU politics, and the future of statecraft. He served as ambassador of France to the United States from 2014 to 2019.

Further reading

Image: French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech on Europe next to a slogan reading 'A powerful Europe' in the amphitheatre of the Sorbonne University in Paris, France, 25 April 2024. Christophe Petit Tesson/Pool via REUTERS