Wanted: a global role for a serious European power with a colonial past and the political will and military means to venture beyond its own borders.
No one will ever accuse France’s Emmanuel Macron of lack of resolve. The first instinct of many European leaders in response to geopolitical upheavals is to hide under the bed covers. The president of France’s Fifth Republic is more likely to dispatch a warship.
Mr Macron’s grand project is to create a “sovereign” or “autonomous” Europe. At its heart, this means that Europeans should not sign up to a bipolar world shaped by Sino-American rivalry. Nor should they limit their options to the choices promulgated by Washington and Beijing. Europe should have a mind of its own, not least in securing its interests in the Mediterranean and Africa.
Among the keys to this European sovereignty, Mr Macron says, are a common intervention force, a common defence budget and a common doctrine for action.
For anyone concerned about the US retreat from international leadership and the assertive authoritarianism of Xi Jinping’s regime in China, the French president’s strategic judgment sounds eminently sensible. US president-elect Joe Biden is patently sincere about restoring American Atlanticism. But, as time passes, Washington can be expected to wind down its contribution to the west’s collective security. As for China, its approach to Europe is now well-established — pick off the weakest nations in order to divide and rule.
So there is much in the French proposition that even an ultra-cautious Germany should agree with. And, sure enough, the need for the EU to take on more responsibility has also become one of Chancellor Angela Merkel's mantras. It will loom large in her first meeting with Mr Biden. If, as expected, Ms Merkel stands down later this year, her successor is likely to be more rather than less willing to widen the boundaries of German engagement.
The troubles arise because Ms Merkel departs from two of the French president’s assumptions. The first is rooted in temperament. Mr Macron believes that in an age of great power competition and might-is-right regional autocrats, Europe must be ready to deploy “hard” power. The days when Europeans could hope the world would sign up to post-nationalist liberal democracy have passed.
So when Greece clashed with Turkey last year over the two nations’ disputed maritime boundaries in the eastern Mediterranean, Mr Macron dispatched a frigate and fighter aircraft in a show of support for Greece. But if Mr Macron’s first instinct is to act, Ms Merkel is a conciliator. In place of missiles, she asked her foreign minister Heiko Maas to mediate between Ankara and Athens.
The second divide is more fundamental. Mr Macron sees the world through Gaullist eyes. The EU is as much a counterpoint to, as an ally of, the US. Strategic autonomy means the freedom to defy Washington as well as Beijing and Moscow. That’s why France sustains a national nuclear deterrent that, unlike Britain’s, is genuinely independent.
Outgoing US President Donald Trump’s threat to dissolve Nato and disengage from Europe was a spur to France’s long-term ambitions. Mr Macron’s fear now is that Mr Biden’s arrival will rekindle the complacency that long said Europe could put itself safely in the hands of the Americans.
For Germany, a bigger European contribution to defence and security is viewed not as a substitute for the US defence umbrella but a means to persuade Washington to stay. Ms Merkel’s defence minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer says the aim is to demonstrate Europe is a “giver” as well as a “taker”. Mr Macron’s strategic autonomy is an illusion.
Somewhere between the French and German positions — a touch closer to Mr Macron than Ms Merkel — there is a sensible balance: a Europe with the capacity and strategic resolve to put out fires, to deter aggressors and promote neighbourhood security, but still be a partner of the US. Mr Macron can fairly argue that this was not the deal struck at the outset of European integration. In return for political legitimacy and economic access, the then West Germany offered France Europe’s political leadership. “Europe will be your revenge” then chancellor Konrad Adenauer promised French prime minister Guy Mollet when the British scuttled back to Washington after the 1956 Suez debacle. The role is no longer vacant. Berlin now calls the shots. Mr Macron deserves to succeed in his ambition for an internationally credible Europe but it will still need the US.
Follow Philip Stephens with myFT and on Twitter