A MEGA response to MAGA

Macron wants to Make Europe Great Again, borrowing from Trumpian MAGA ideas and protectionist Bidenomics. The Euro polls may influence this process
Image used for representational purposes only.
Image used for representational purposes only.Express illustrations |Mandar Pardikar

In about a week, elections will determine the complexion of a new European parliament. They would show how the public evaluates the policies of Europe’s decision-makers on security, economic challenges, energy transition and migration. Polls project right and far-right parties may increase representation, perhaps even displacing the centre-left as the second largest grouping.

In April, France’s President Emmanuel Macron laid out a characteristically frank analysis of Europe’s challenges, declaring it would “die” if it did not wake up to current realities. Macron said Europe today encounters hostility from Russia, lack of interest from the US and competition from China. The US has only two priorities: America First and China. Europe is not a geopolitical priority. It has to find strategies to prevent marginalisation and relegation.

Macron’s prescriptions include policies to accelerate self-reliance in raw materials, semiconductors, digital technologies and healthcare; and strategies to make Europe a world leader in artificial intelligence, quantum computing, space, biotechnologies and new energy by 2030. ‘Food sovereignty’ and energy transition policies with economic growth should be priorities.

The centrepiece of Macron’s recipe is a strong European defence capacity, with a full spectrum of military capabilities. This needs a Europe-wide defence industrial strategy, consolidating specialisations of major players, a “European preference” for military acquisitions and addressing the mismatch of specifications and standards (which was shown up in the assistance extended to Ukraine). It envisages strategic cohesion between European armies and a rapid reaction force, creating an autonomous European capacity to pursue its own defence strategies “in the Mediterranean, Africa, the Indo-Pacific and the Arctic.”

Europe also needs a clear understanding of its geography, to protect against ungoverned inflows of migrants and goods. It needs to protect its culture: “Europe’s children are more and more exposed to American or Asian content.” Achievement of these targets may need massive investment of a trillion euros annually, but Macron says it is essential for Europe’s resuscitation. It involves spurning Western economic orthodoxies of decades (on which they have been lecturing countries like India for decades). Macron’s justification is that Europe cannot afford to remain a nice guy when the US and China are breaking all the rules.

The objective is a Europe that is not a “vassal of the US”, but a “power of balance” that can develop reciprocal partnerships with its own Arctic, Indo-Pacific, Latin America and Africa strategies, rejecting bipolar confrontation too many continents are accepting. It is a vision that can be described as Making Europe Great Again—borrowing from Trumpian MAGA ideas and protectionist Bidenomics. It has been dubbed grandiose, but it is consistent with his past warnings about Europe’s lack of geopolitical vision. Seven years ago, he called for “greater unity, greater sovereignty, greater democracy” in Europe. Over the years, he has actively engaged in initiatives to strengthen European capacities.

There is a deja vu in this ambition for a strong Europe. Soon after the Cold War, Europe saw opportunities and a demographic dividend from its forthcoming expansion. In 2000, the EU launched the Lisbon agenda to transform it into “the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world”. Underpinning the agenda was a security and defence policy, envisaging military integration and a force to promote European interests beyond boundaries.

Concerned about a potential decoupling of Europe from America, the US acted to assert the primacy of NATO in EU’s defence policy, including a right of first refusal for military actions. The eastward expansion of NATO had its own corrective impact. The Iraq war of 2003 created East-West fissures in the continent and the eurozone crisis accentuated its North-South divisions. The Lisbon agenda of 2000 gave way to a less ambitious programme.

In recent years, European institutions have reiterated the importance of strategic autonomy for Europe. However, the interpretation of strategic autonomy varies in different nations. More importantly, among many in Europe—as among many strategic analysts in India—the term conjures up the spectre of anti-Americanism, which dictates caution in its use. A research paper of the European Council of Foreign Relations notes differing responses to US perspectives: UK, Sweden, Baltic and Central European countries consider US concerns an important determinant of the limits of strategic autonomy, while some western European countries believe that US concerns are driven by economic motives.

Two men have recently held up a mirror to Europe’s strategic challenges—Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin. The former by his posture on transatlantic defence and economic relations; the latter by his military operations in Ukraine, which have shown up Europe’s vulnerabilities. Prospects of an impending Trump administration and a protracted war in Ukraine have energised consultations on measures to protect its security and economic interests.

Of the elements in Macron’s blueprint, defence coordination and integration have made the most progress. A UK-France declaration in March 2023 held out the prospect of the UK joining a European defence initiative. It was suggested their nuclear deterrents could provide security guarantees for Europe. These are nascent ideas, requiring acceptance and validation. Creating the capacities and force structures for a robust European deterrent would be a lengthy, but worthwhile, process. For the US, which is overstretched in its efforts to contain Russia and China, outsourcing European security to Europeans may not be as unwelcome as it was two decades ago. British participation may be a confidence builder, both across the Atlantic and the continent.

Leaders recognise the geopolitical need for a strong, autonomous Europe. But translating declarations into viable action plans needs visionary leadership, drawing in disparate political strands and creating a common minimum programme that meets acceptance across the continent.

Alliances were a Cold War construct, with inbuilt inflexibilities. Alliance partners now have a new diversity of political and socioeconomic options and compulsions. This is the reality Europe is encountering. The transatlantic link will remain important; the challenge is to find a balance between a tight embrace and decoupling.

The outcome of the Euro elections may influence this process. A Europe rooting for multipolarity can make a valuable contribution to an emerging world order, whenever that happens.

(Views are personal)

(raghavan.ps@gmail.com)

PS Raghavan | Former diplomat and Distinguished Fellow, Vivekananda International Foundation

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