France’s Macron opposes US cold war on China, wants independent Europe – but is it just rhetoric?

France’s President Emmanuel Macron has called for Europe to be more independent of the United States, suggesting that Paris does not want to be part of Washington’s new cold war on China.

Macron insisted that Europe should develop its own “strategic autonomy” and not simply be “followers” or “vassals” of the US.

The French leader has made comments like these in the past, however, and has failed to take concrete actions to challenge US hegemony.

In 2018, Macron (and his German counterpart, Angela Merkel) called for creating a “true European army”, as part of “a Europe which defends itself better alone, without just depending on the United States, in a more sovereign manner”. Yet nothing came of it.

Paris even helped create an alternative payment mechanism to circumvent illegal US sanctions on Iran, called INSTEX, but the system was barely used before it was shut down in early 2023.

Macron took a three-day trip to China this April, where he met with President Xi Jinping.

Following the meeting, Politico published an exclusive interview with Macron.

The French leader warned that there is a “great risk” if Europe “gets caught up in crises that are not ours, which prevents it from building its strategic autonomy”.

“If the tensions between the two superpowers heat up … we won’t have the time nor the resources to finance our strategic autonomy and we will become vassals”, he added.

Macron cautioned that European leaders must not “believe we are just America’s followers”.

He continued:

The question Europeans need to answer … is it in our interest to accelerate [a crisis] on Taiwan? No. The worse thing would be to think that we Europeans must become followers on this topic and take our cue from the U.S. agenda and a Chinese overreaction.

Macron also criticized the “extraterritoriality of the U.S. dollar”. This March, a French company was involved in the UAE’s first ever sale of liquified natural gas to China in Beijing’s currency, the renminbi.

China is the EU’s top trading partner

The intention behind Macron’s trip to Beijing and his conciliatory tone is quite clear: China is the Eurozone’s top trading partner, and the continent cannot sacrifice its economic relations with the Asian giant.

Hawks in both Washington and Brussels have called for the West to economically “decouple” from China, but this is much easier said than done. Macron recognizes that it is a fool’s errand, and not practical.

EU top trading partners graph

The European Parliament acknowledged that, “In 2020, China took over the position as the EU’s main trading partner in goods from the US, with an overall share of 16.2% in 2021 compared with 14.7% for the US”.

In 2021, 22% of EU imports came from China – double the mere 11% from the US, and significantly more than the 8% of imports from Russia, 7% from the United Kingdom, or 6% from Switzerland, according to Eurostat data.

In the same year, 10% of EU exports went to China, making it the third most important foreign market for Eurozone goods after the UK (13%) and the US (18%).

EU exports countries map 2021

This also explains why Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz visited China in November, and took a similarly conciliatory position toward Beijing.

Following his trip, Scholz emphasized in an op-ed for Politico, “We don’t want to decouple from China, but can’t be overreliant”.

The German leader acknowledged that “new centers of power are emerging in a multipolar world”, adding that “we aim to establish and expand partnerships with all of them”.

In the case of Berlin, the issue is even more urgent.

Germany’s top trading partner is China, providing the European nation with 12% of its imports in 2021 – roughly double Germany’s 6.1% of imports from the US.

The Chinese market is also the second most important for German goods, representing 7.6% of its exports in the same year, compared to 8.8% for the US.

France’s economy is not as interconnected with China’s, but the Asian giant is still very important, as Paris’ seventh-biggest customer and sixth-biggest supplier in 2021.

Germany and France are the Eurozone’s two largest economies, representing roughly 41% of the EU’s entire economy (24.26% and 16.72%, respectively). So if they oppose decoupling with China, it is difficult to see how the rest of the region could try to do so.

However, whether or not Berlin or Paris could muster the political capital needed to challenge Washington’s hegemony is another question altogether.

In 2019, they apparently tried to do so – but failed.

The failure (or abandonment) of the INSTEX mechanism for trade with Iran

European governments were angry that US President Donald Trump sabotaged the Iran nuclear deal by unilaterally withdrawing in May 2018, in flagrant violation of a UN Security Council resolution and therefore international law.

Washington imposed heavy sanctions on Iran. But Europe wanted to continue trading with the West Asian nation.

So, in response, Germany, France, and Britain developed the Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges (INSTEX), a new payment mechanism to circumvent US sanctions.

Economist Esfandyar Batmanghelidj, founder of the Bourse & Bazaar Foundation think tank, recalled that, “In August 2018, EU high representative Federica Mogherini and foreign ministers Jean-Yves Le Drian of France, Heiko Maas of Germany, and Jeremy Hunt of the United Kingdom, issued a joint statement in which they committed to preserve ‘effective financial channels with Iran, and the continuation of Iran’s export of oil and gas’ in the face of the returning US sanctions”.

However, there was a problem, Batmanghelidj wrote:

Many European technocrats were reluctant to support a project which had the overt aim of blunting US sanctions power, even at a time when figures such as French finance minister Bruno Le Maire and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte were making bold statements about the need for European economic sovereignty. Even INSTEX’s inaugural managing director, Per Fischer, departed given concerns over his association with a company that had been maligned by American officials as a sanctions busting scheme. Then, in May 2019, when the Trump administration cancelled a set of sanctions waivers, European purchases of Iranian oil ended.

By January 2023, INSTEX was shut down – just four years after it was created, with little to show for it.

Batmanghelidj concluded that “many considered the INSTEX project doomed even before the first transaction was completed”, and “most of the blame for INSTEX’s failure must lie with the Europeans”.

“European officials promised a historic project to assert their economic sovereignty, but they never really committed to that undertaking”, he said.

If such an undertaking failed so recently, it is difficult to see how Europe could challenge US policy on an even more politically sensitive issue, on a much bigger scale today.

Yes, China is much more important for Europe’s economy than Iran, but the pressure from Washington is also much greater.

EU is already joining US tech war on China

In fact, European states are already capitulating to the United States and joining its tech war on China.

Following Washington’s lead, the Netherlands has restricted the export of advanced microchip technology to Beijing.

The European Commission vice-president for trade relations, Valdis Dombrovskis, has said this ban may expand to all of the Eurozone.

“The way export controls function in the EU, it’s a national decision. But there is a possibility also to bring this decision (to) the EU level. The Dutch authorities have indicated they have this interest”, Dombrovskis stated in March.

If Macron is truly committed to European “strategic autonomy” and relative independence from the United States, France may have to abandon the EU itself.

Is Paris willing to do so?

Back in 2018, when Donald Trump was president, Macron called for a “true European army”, arguing, “We have to protect ourselves with respect to China, Russia and even the United States of America… We need a Europe which defends itself better alone, without just depending on the United States, in a more sovereign manner”.

Then German Chancellor Angela Merkel agreed. Echoing Macron, she told the European parliament that November, “The times when we could rely on others is past”, and “We have to look at the vision of one day creating a real, true European army”.

But what came of this? Nothing.

In fact, five years later, Europe is even more dependent on – and subordinated to – the United States than ever before.

The proxy war against Russia in Ukraine has only deepened Washington’s influence over Brussels, strengthening NATO under clear US leadership.

Neoconservatives in Europe (and US) denounce Macron’s calls for more independence

Macron’s interview with Politico, following his April 2023 visit to China, set off a diplomatic scandal inside Europe.

A group of neoconservative politicians from the hawkish Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) published a letter condemning Macron’s “ill-judged remarks” on Taiwan, Politico noted in a follow-up report.

They declared, “It should be emphasized that the president’s words are severely out of step with the feeling across Europe’s legislatures and beyond”.

Right-wing, pro-US political leaders in Eastern Europe were even angrier.

Poland’s far-right Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki declared in the airport in Warsaw, “Instead of building strategic autonomy from the United States, I propose a strategic partnership with the United States”.

Morawiecki made these comments as he boarded a plane to fly to Washington for a three-day state visit.

Neoconservative US Senator Marco Rubio published a furious video on Twitter, arrogantly telling Macron, “Maybe, we should basically say we are going to focus on Taiwan and the threats that China poses, and you guys handle Ukraine and Europe”.

Britain’s establishment newspaper The Guardian quoted more hawkish European officials who denounced Macron’s opposition to the new cold war on China.

It also noted that the Wall Street Journal’s reliably right-wing editorial board condemned Macron as well.

In short, there is a lot of momentum against Macron. And there is very little indication that he has the will, yet alone the ability, to handle it.

Macron is wildly unpopular at home

None of this is to mention that Macron has hemorrhaged support at home.

Since he came to power in 2017, the French president has faced mass protests against his right-wing neoliberal economic reforms, from the Yellow Vests mass movement to constant strikes.

In fact, while he was in Beijing, French unions were leading huge demonstrations against Macron’s attempts to raise the retirement age.

In March, Macron’s approval rating hit a record low of a mere 23%, with 72% disapproval, according to the polling firm Morning Consult.

Many EU leaders are skeptical of Macron’s call for “strategic autonomy”, preferring to follow US orders

The limited room that Macron has to maneuver was reflected by the fact that he wasn’t even able to travel to China alone.

European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen joined Macron in Beijing – although she spent much less time meeting with Xi that the French leader did.

Von der Leyen, the de facto EU chief, pushed a much more aggressive, antagonistic line against China, lecturing it on the so-called “rules-based international order” and the need for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine.

Beijing has long criticized the West’s vague concept of the “rules-based international order”, which is never clearly defined. Instead, China has upheld the international law-based order with its center in the United Nations.

A photo of von der Leyen and Macron sitting far away from Xi in a large circular table symbolically represented the political distance between the leaders.

China’s state media outlet Xinhua quoted President Xi, who “noted the profound historic transformation taking place in the world, and pointed out that China and France, as permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, major countries with a tradition of independence, and firm advocates for a multi-polar world and for greater democracy in international relations”.

This was a hint that Beijing welcomes Paris’ calls for Europe to have more independence from Washington and to establish Europe as an autonomous pole in a multipolar world.

But whether or not France could do so, if its political will truly is genuine, is highly dubious.

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