Macron offers ‘strategic humility’ to woo Europe’s east

Emmanuel Macron deployed a novel tactic this week to try to repair France’s frayed relations with Europe’s eastern flank — call it “strategic humility”. 

In a speech at a security conference in Bratislava, the French president all but apologised for not heeding warnings issued from Warsaw to Tallinn about the risks posed by Vladimir Putin’s belligerent Russia, promising they could “count on” France in future.

“Some said you had missed an opportunity to shut up. I think we also lost an opportunity to listen to you,” said Macron. “This time is over.” 

The carefully prepared line was an allusion to an infamous quip made in 2003 by then-president Jacques Chirac, who chided east European nations who sided with the US and UK on the invasion of Iraq for having the temerity to share their views.

By contrasting Chirac’s high-handed remark, which shocked many in eastern Europe at the time, with Macron’s apparent humbleness, the Elysée hoped to signal that France wanted to work with countries in the region to tackle challenges laid down by the war in Ukraine. 

The speech, which also included pledges to stick by Ukraine as long as it takes and familiar calls for Europe to invest in its “strategic autonomy” on defence, was greeted by growing applause from officials and analysts in the room. He even acknowledged that France had in the past been perceived as “arrogant, distant and uninterested” in the edges of Europe.

Yet even Macron’s allies admit that it will take more than words to overcome the deep distrust that has taken root between France and its eastern neighbours. It is more than just the French president engaging in fruitless negotiations with Putin before the invasion. Some have not forgotten Macron calling Nato “brain-dead” in 2019, and remain wary of Paris’s frequent calls for Europe to rely less on the US for its security. 

More recently, Macron has also irritated with a series of media interviews, such as saying Russia would need “security guarantees” to end the war — eliding the fact that Ukraine needs them more — or that Russia “should not be humiliated” in any peace process.

His recent warning that Europe should not “be followers” of America amid rising tensions with China over Taiwan provoked rage in eastern Europe, where they were seen as tone deaf given the leading role the US plays in supporting Ukraine.

In Bratislava, Macron’s mission was not only to clarify France’s positions, but also to prepare for the next few months in which Europe will face tough decisions about the next phase of the war in Ukraine and the related issues of EU enlargement and the future of Nato. 

The speech read like a mini road map for French diplomacy in the months to come. It was almost as if Macron realised that irking half the continent might not fit well with his aspirations to lead Europe.

So he made clear that European defence is a “pillar” of Nato, not a substitute for it. The US deserves thanks for its support on Ukraine, he added. EU enlargement must be done “the faster the better”, and future security guarantees to Ukraine must be “credible and strong”. 

Macron even voiced support for Ukraine being granted a “path” to joining Nato next month at a key summit on the future of the alliance. Although he stopped short of endorsing full membership, it was a shift in tone.

One French official said Macron’s appearance at the Globsec conference was about more than mending fences or “talking to eastern and central Europe just for the sake of it”. Instead, it was to “build a path and come up with a shared vision for the future of Europe”. 

Indeed, Macron is never short on big visions. That often draws ire in Brussels, Berlin and Washington, but it can also help spark debate to help Europe evolve. 

One eastern European minister who has privately been critical of Macron in the past welcomed his pivot. “Macron only needs to make one good speech and he’ll be the most loved guy in eastern Europe,” the person said.

Such optimism seems a tad premature. Shahin Vallée, a former adviser to Macron who now works at the German Council on Foreign Relations, said much would hang on the actions on EU enlargement and the next phase of support for Ukraine. “The president knew a charm offensive was needed,” Vallée said. “But now he’ll have to follow up.”

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