The capital of Slovakia, even less so that of Moldova, is not used to the role of a location that produces big headlines on strategic issues of European politics. But this is exactly what happened in the last few days. President Macron chose the GLOBSEC conference in Bratislava to deliver a timely and important vision of political changes that he believes need to be applied in Europe. Then, almost fifty leaders met in Chisinau for the summit of the recently inaugurated European Political Community initiative.
In Europe at least, both events overshadowed the NATO Foreign Ministers meeting in Oslo, EU-US trade consultations and decisive debates in Washington on breaking a political deadlock, which could have brought the US government business to a standstill. Let us try and unpack the two developments one by one.
Macron’s speechiin Slovakia was long awaited. The French president has a reputation for intellectual fervour, as he is frequently ready to offer (solicited or not) views on a variety of international topics. Still, there is a genuine demand for a comprehensive approach and a more direct verbalisation of a leading European country’s position on such key issues as EU and NATO enlargement, relations between Europe and US, policy on Russia, and of course the essential support offered to Ukraine today and tomorrow.
It seems that Macron has lived up to expectations as far as the comprehensive format of his outlined vision. His discourse neatly connected the dots when it comes to the challenges facing the Euro-Atlantic community. Unlike on previous occasions he was careful to strike a consensus tone on the essential role of NATO for European security, took great pains to praise the US contribution and assure the audience that his ideas on a much greater role for Europeans in defence (“European pillar of NATO”) were neither meant to challenge NATO’s mandate, not to strive towards some form of “Franco-German condominium.”
Macron spoke favourably about a strategic obligation to proceed with enlargement of the two main institutions, which would encompass countries such as Ukraine and those in the Balkans. He went far in advocating interim security guarantees for Ukraine, which should go beyond the so-called Israeli model (strong self-defence capacity coupled with real security commitments from other countries). There was also little of the previously heard ambiguity on Russia in the speech – Macron was clear in his condemnation of Russia, ruled out any legitimacy of early rebuilding of cooperative security arrangements with Moscow that has “delegitimised itself” and, crucially, declared full and long-term support to help Ukraine regain its sovereignty and territorial integrity.
Just as importantly, the French President acknowledged a link between European ambitions and an imperative to invest in defence (budget, industry capacity etc.). Commendably, he also addressed such sensitive issues as nuclear policy and European air defence structural weaknesses.
The other political goal of the speech (which determined the place of its delivery) was of course a desire to patch up relations with Central Eastern Europe (CEE), severely dented as a result of long tradition of ignoring its interests and views by Paris. Here, Macron scored a lot of brownie points by admitting to a sin of arrogance (famous advice of President Chirac to CEE not to lose an opportunity to keep quiet), quoting Kundera, and stating a wish to listen more to CEE and to build Europe without divide into old and new members. Those CEE countries representatives present in Bratislava were happy with the new narrative and welcomed the unusual degree of self-criticism (even if addressed primarily at his predecessors).
So far so good one might say. The list of positives generated by the speech outlined above is long and meaningful. However, the picture is somewhat spoiled by some crucial details.
First, the commendable “call to European arms” was mixed with the predictable verbalisation of distrust in US leadership. While praising the current Biden administration Macron was adamant that Europe should not rely on US support from future presidents (the Trump factor). While talking about a need to avoid European strategic dependency on external players he put US and Russia in the same category (as if a freely signed Washington Treaty were in any way comparable to relationship with Moscow, even at the best of times). He pushed the narrative on Europe’s strategic autonomy in the field of defence as if it were an agreed reality (which it is not). Moreover, he freely mixed a somewhat romantic vision of European capacities with dubious policy advice. For example, by admonishing frontier states for signing contracts on arms supplies from US or South Korea (choices which are driven primarily by available industrial offers – here and now, not in a distant future – as exemplified by the orders for tanks).
Second, commendable elements of the speech that dealt with enlargement processes were somewhat undermined by two weaknesses. On the one hand, while a link between the strategic logic of including new countries in the EU and accompanying institutional reforms of the institutions was voiced, little was offered in terms of policy detail. On the other, there was a glaring lack of admission that both in the past and today it is the intransigent position of capitals such as Paris that causes delays and in fact puts the breaks on the enlargement process path. Politically, that is where the problem lies.
Third, having promised to treat CEE states as equal partners and listen carefully to their views, Macron, when answering specific questions on policies which are of existential relevance for them (and where they have a superior expertise), argued forcefully against their well-stated position. This was illustrated by his stated reluctance to actually prosecute Russian leaders (“well, if we have to negotiate peace with them, then…”), as well as categorical opposition to extending sanctions on the Lukashenko regime – something that a country like Poland is actively lobbying for.iiMoreover, there was little recognition of the disproportionate military and financial burden that frontier states must bear in ensuring the security of the eastern flank – the situation contrasting badly with the heavy commitments offered by France and other Western European countries to Western Germany during the Cold War.
Did President Macron manage to repair France’s credibility with CEE? One can consider it, unlike some French expertsiii, as a first step. Is his vision of where Europe should go strategically already fully acceptable to other Europeans? Not really, the outlined views (especially containing detailed analysis and prescription) represent mainly the French paradigm. But President Macron is owed big credit for energising a debate, addressing many key issues head-on and engaging with his critics. His call for a “strategic awakening “of Europe is justified and deserves a constructive debate.
The next newsworthy gathering – the summit of the European Political Community (EPC) – took place on the outskirts of Chisinau. The French input was unmistakable here as well, with the initiative being championed by Paris from the beginning.
Unlike the first EPC summit in Prague which was compared to political speed-datingiv, the one in Moldova did serve a number of important purposes.
The location was of immense value. Moldova is one of the most vulnerable European countries – small, partially occupied by Russian military unwanted by a host nation, constantly under threat from a reinvigorated Russian imperialism. It deserved the limelight, and its leadership used the occasion well to highlight the country’s plight, generate pledges of solidarity and beef up its international standing.
The rather nebulous concept of EPC – characterized by a variety of elements such as “not an ersatz for the EU”, devoid of institutional shackles, not stressed out by a need for a negotiated communique, while offering a platform that is perhaps beyond the political reach of both the EU or NATO (the OSCE being paralyzed by Russia and Belarus) – actually has shown its usefulness. For many leaders (particularly from Western Europe) just spending a day or two in a truly European country they know little of, was a big bonus, the value of which cannot be measured by any technocratic standards. As one of my former bosses – NATO Secretary General Lord Robertson used to say: “In international politics chemistry may matter more than mathematics.”
The summit provided an excellent opportunity to address – in a somewhat unscripted format – a variety of tricky issues, of great regional and bilateral significance. The meetings involving Azeri and Armenian leaders, as well as those of Kosovo and Serbia, were particularly noteworthy.
It was also a very timely opportunity for the Ukrainians to press their case on many fronts, with different configuration of partners: on NATO membership, on training of pilots and potential supplies of F16s, as well as on improving the understanding for its cause among countries outside the NATO and EU circle. Once again, the public exposure showed to what favourable effect does President Zelenskyi put his communication skills.
The positive and inclusive atmosphere of the Chisinau summit has made a good contribution to making EU’s neighbours feel wanted and deserving solidarity of full members of EU. The fact that Spain is going to host the next summit this autumn, and UK (highly visible and active participant in the gathering, despite its initial misgivings) stands ready to do so next year, offers the initiative crucial follow-up opportunities. But some caution is in order as well.
First, bonhomie and short-lived political limelight offered by the EPC meeting to many countries outside the EU, simply cannot replace importance of the EU summit in December that will decide on the pace of enlargement, or the NATO summit in July that will take crucial decisions on and for Europe’s security. Opinions that somehow “the new club offers a visible European home to Ukraine [or other countries for that matter], making clear the country belongs to the greater European family”vare not only misplaced, but they are also potentially misleading in terms of the relative weight of different frameworks.
Second, the fact that the newly re-elected Turkish President chose not to come to Chisinau – most likely not wanting to be put under pressure over blocking Sweden’s accession to NATO – clearly showed the limits to what EPC can achieve when it comes to heavy political lifting. And the obvious and intentional absence of invitations to Russia and Belarus – the two aggressor states – only reinforced this point.
Finally, while the EPC summit stole the headlines from other meetings, the fact remains that the inclusive concept of “European community” cannot be a match for hard-nosed interests that all countries rightly associate with participation in real decision-making bodies. Thus, the EU members should resist the temptation to treat the EPC as a form of a consolation prize for those not welcomed in their institutional midst, as the bonhomie may be short-lived if non-members eventually find out that pleasant words and nice family photos taken at EPC get-togethers bear no fruit in expected political, trade, and security progress in relations with the other Europeans.
What did we learn from the speech of President Macron in Bratislava and the EPC summit in Moldova? A number couple of useful insights spring to mind.
One – speeches and political summits are fine, but it will take a lot more perseverance, sacrifice, and political boldness to rebuild the European security architecture broken by Russia’s barbaric invasion (abetted by Lukashenka’s regime).
Two – it is good in those challenging times to experiment somewhat with new ideas, but most of all to go out of your comfort zone and devote more attention to the views and urgent needs of those beyond one’s closest circle. Perhaps “strategic reconciliationvishould be the priority for Europeans.
Three the response to the war must take precedence over other projects, no matter how interesting for or liked by a given country. The old, exclusive ways of doing business in Europe and with other Europeans, will not work anymore. Time for a real paradigm shift.
Author: Robert Pszczel, Senior Resident Fellow, Casimir Pulaski Foundation
Supported by a grant from the Open Society Initiative for Europe within the Open Society Foundations
i For the text of President Macron’s speech see: Déplacement en Slovaquie, Élysée, elysee.fr (accessed 05 June 05 2023).
ii The Polish assessment of the case for further sanctions on Belarus is well covered by Anna M. Dyner in her latest commentary for PISM, PISM, https://www.pism.pl/publications/belarusian-foreign-policy-priorities-presents-challenges-for-poland (accessed 05 June 05 2023).
iii See Did Macron just dispel Central and Eastern Europe’s skepticism about France?, Atlantic Council, https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/did-macron-just-dispel-central-and-eastern-europes-skepticism-about-france/ (accessed 05 June 05 2023).
iv The term used by Edward Lucas in his recent article Sandu’s Line-up: the Chişinău Summit, CEPA, https://cepa.org/article/sandus-line-up-the-chisinau-summit/ (accessed 05 June 05 2023).
v Quote from the first publication of the Brussels Institute form Geopolitics Bringing the greater European family together, Brussels Institute for Geopolitics, big-europe.eu (accessed 05 June 05 2023).
vi The term used in a commendable piece published by Politico, The need for European ‘strategic reconciliation, POLITICO, https://www.politico.eu/article/the-need-for-european-strategic-reconciliation/(accessed 05 June 05 2023)/