The reaction to statements French President Emmanuel Macron made in an interview during the return trip from his state visit to China last week has been significant. In light of increasingly exacerbated antagonisms around the world because of the war in Ukraine, the Frenchman immediately made himself vulnerable to the accusation that he was weakening the trans-Atlantic partnership now of all times by suggesting that the European Union should stay on the sidelines of the looming conflict between China and the U.S. The EU is running the risk of letting itself become a “vassal,” Macron warned in the interview. Of course, many assumed that the French president meant that the EU should not become a vassal of the U.S., although he did not say it that way, at least not in the interview with the French newspaper Les Echos. Some commentators even interpreted Macron’s statements as a carte blanche for Chinese President Xi Jinping to take over Taiwan.
Aside from the fact that these interpretations are overstating Macron’s influence in the EU, the French president was much more concerned with the independence of the EU, which, in his view, needs to strive for “strategic autonomy” and position itself as a “third pole” alongside the U.S. and China. If the world is, in fact, confronted with another war in the Far East, (not only) the EU will be caught in the middle between its ally the U.S. on one side and economic powerhouse China on the other, on which the EU and its corporations depend in many respects (keyword: rare earths). Whether the feared scenario of a war over Taiwan does indeed come to pass depends entirely on whether Xi, like his Russian counterpart, aspires to secure for himself an allegedly legendary status in the history books by (re-?)uniting the Chinese territories, even if it has to be done by force.
Still, with the legislation that has been proposed in recent months, the EU has taken steps to remove itself from its strategic dependencies, and not only those on China. This is what Macron was referring to in the interview. And it should be clear in Beijing that the Europeans would by no means stand by and watch if Chinese leadership took off the gloves following its most recent military maneuvers in the waters around Taiwan. German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock made that clear yesterday during her own visit to Beijing.
But even if the EU is making progress toward its goal of “strategic autonomy,” especially in economic terms, it is still far from establishing itself as a “third pole” in a multipolar world. The 27 member states may have shown unbroken unity in their support for Ukraine up until now. But aside from the fact that, without the U.S. and dependent solely on the EU, Ukraine could not have stood up to the Russian invaders for so long, military aid from EU member states has not come without significant friction losses. To have influence on an international stage, the EU member states need to depart from the principle of complete unity when it comes to foreign relations, and sooner rather than later. Otherwise, the least common denominator will continue to determine the EU’s position. Above all, however, the 27 member states need to clarify whether they are ready to do everything possible to become a decisive power in the world. The answer to that question is not easy, and not only with respect to the geopolitical situation today.