Macron, Not Merkel, Is Europe's Most Powerful Leader

Macron, Not Merkel, Is Europe's Most Powerful Leader
AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein
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If anyone doubted that French President Emmanuel Macron is now Europe’s diplomatic leader, this past week’s meetings with Turkish President Recep Tayyep Erdogan in Paris and with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing should settle the issue.

Furthermore, it is clear that Europe’s other leaders are glad Macron is stepping up -- especially German Chancellor Angela Merkel. When President Donald Trump seemed set early in his term to withdraw the United States from global engagement, Merkel was sometimes said to be, for simple lack of anyone else, the leader of the free world. The mega-cautious Merkel has recoiled from this distinction.

Macron by contrast is a decisive leader who revels in ambition -- the most self-confident French president since François Mitterrand. His solid political position at home, where he is backed by a strong government headed by Prime Minister Edouard Philippe and an absolute majority in parliament, frees him to act in foreign policy.

This was apparent in the last week’s meetings.

Erdogan came to France on what was to be a fence-mending charm offensive. (He simultaneously dispatched his foreign minister to Germany.) The Turkish president’s goal was to change what the French media portray as Turkey’s isolation in world affairs -- an isolation blamed on Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule. Reacting to the failed July 2016 coup against him, Erdogan has had tens of thousands arrested and more than 100,000 government, media, and other employees removed from their jobs.

A few significant economic deals were sealed -- for example, the Turkish national airline signed commitments for 25 Airbus planes. But the greatest attention was given to Turkey’s crackdown and its implications for Turkey’s decades-long attempt to join the European Union.

Erdogan said the Turks are “really tired” of Europe’s stalling about membership.  “We cannot continuously implore the E.U., ‘please take us, too,’” he said. 

Macron’s reply was harsher than Erdogan expected, especially as it was public. Membership is now off the table, Macron said. Instead, Turkey’s relationship with the European Union should be some kind of “partnership,” of which the Union has many kinds with many non-candidate countries. Turkey, in other words, is being demoted.

The hypocrisy of pretending Turkey might become a member needs to stop, Macron said. Turkey remains vital to NATO’s geopolitical weight. But Ankara’s turn away from the rule of law and European Convention on Human Rights values has spoiled its relations with Europe.

Macron’s subsequent arrival in China showed how different it is to deal with a bigger power. The French president is no supplicant, and Xi provided a warm show of respect, talking of a common history of interest in each other’s cultures. China’s foreign policy has a long memory and France, as Xi noted, holds a special place. In 1964, a decade before the Nixon-Kissinger trip to Beijing, Charles de Gaulle made France the first Western government to give diplomatic recognition to the People’s Republic.

Nevertheless, it was clear who was the more powerful side, in economic and in political terms.

As is customary, many business deals were signed, but their overall importance was limited. Chinese commitments to buy dozens of Airbus planes are not binding agreements, and Beijing’s lifting of restrictions on French beef exports, which Macron particularly emphasized, was good for French agrobusiness but hardly high-tech. The state-owned Areva nuclear giant will build a huge facility for reprocessing radioactive waste materials, but the deal is also a lifeline for Areva, a company in financial difficulty.

The European Union is China’s biggest overall export market, but within it, Germany is the most important economy. At $36 billion, France’s trade deficit with China is the country’s largest.   

Huge trade deficits with China align French and American interests. The U.S. trade deficit with China was $347 billion in 2016. Both governments are rejecting more Chinese investment into their economies as a matter of protecting strategic sectors. (China does the same, Macron noted.) Trump and Macron are backing each other.  

Like Charles de Gaulle and Mitterrand before him, Macron plays a weaker hand against the global order’s biggest powers. But today’s Europe is no longer straight-jacketed between the superpowers as it was during the Cold War. Europe is no longer a prize in superpower competition, it’s a player.

To the extent Europe becomes stronger economically and geo-strategically more focused and ambitious, Macron becomes a more pivotal leader in global affairs.

“Europe is back,” the French president said.  Washington should welcome this.   

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