German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s thirteen-year reign over Germany — and thus the European Union — is almost over. Since the Trump presidency became fact, Merkel has been referred to in the European press as the “leader of the free world.” But now she’s about to lose the leadership of her own party and her chancellorship may soon be over.
With the Merkel era over, and with no German leader of stature in the warm-up circle, the leadership of the EU will pass to France. As he demonstrated during last weekend’s centenary celebration of the end of World War I, French President Emmanuel Macron is eagerly campaigning for the job. He has a very large pantsuit to fill, and he’s playing a weak hand.
German’s economy is the largest in Europe, its GDP at about $4.3 trillion. France’s economy is far smaller, its GDP at about $2.5 trillion. Both nations have, for decades, been NATO deadbeats: Germany’s defense spending is about 1.2% of GDP, though France’s spending is supposed to rise to the NATO baseline of 2% next year. On what the money will be spent remains to be seen.
Macron is not popular at home. At the end of September, a major poll showed that only twenty-nine percent of French people were satisfied with his leadership. His standing wasn’t improved by a cabinet shakeup. To claim leadership of the EU he has to do a lot better so Macron did what French pols always do: he praised France’s past glories and trashed America.
His choice of what — and who — to honor was, to say the least, misdirected. In a Paris celebration of France’s role in World War I, Macron honored several French generals including Marshal Petain. Petain’s role in World War I was to lead the French army to a stalemated war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of French soldiers. During World War II, Petain headed the Nazi-collaborating “Vichy” government that oversaw the deportation of tens of thousands of French Jews to Nazi death camps.
When that didn’t go so well, Macron reverted to the other means of gathering support among French voters: America-bashing. This year, Trump bashing is the sport in vogue.
The context for Macron’s latest foray into defense policy is Trump’s notification that the U.S. is withdrawing from the 1987 Intermediate range Nuclear Forces treaty because of Russia’s blatant violations of it. Those violations — producing and deploying nuclear-armed missiles having a range of between 500 and 5500 kilometers — threatens Europe far more than the U.S. Europe’s leaders — Macron, Merkel, and the rest — are angry at Trump for the treaty withdrawal rather than Putin for his treaty violations that clearly change the balance of power in Europe.
Macron blamed Trump, saying that the European nations were the principal victims of his action.
Last week, in the buildup to the World War I centennial ceremonies, Macron began his campaign to succeed Merkel as EU leader. Addressing the cyber threats Europe faces — and Trump’s withdrawal from the INF treaty — Macron advocated an independent European military — i.e., independent of NATO and the U.S. — saying that, “We should protect ourselves when it comes to China, Russia and even the United States.”
He made clear what he meant: “We will not protect the Europeans unless we decide to have a true European army,” he said. To do that, the EU would have to create a force separate from and independent of NATO.
The absurdity of that is demonstrated by the EU nations’ allergy to defense spending. Even the liberal European press can’t take Macron’s idea seriously. The very liberal Economist magazine said, “Europeans must do more to defend themselves, but the only effective European ‘army’ — or armies — are forces that plug firmly into NATO. Anything else would be good only for ceremonial parades, not real wars.”
Trump reacted by Tweeting, “President Macron of France has just suggested that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the U.S., China and Russia. Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidizes greatly!”
Macron wasn’t nearly done. Last week, Trump proclaimed himself a “nationalist,” emphasizing his “Make America Great Again” approach to the rest of the world. With Trump and other leaders looking on at the big Paris event yesterday, Macron said, “Patriotism is the exact opposite of nationalism. Nationalism is a betrayal of patriotism.”
Macron added, “In saying ‘Our interests first, whatever happens to the others,’ you erase the most precious thing a nation can have, that which makes it live, that which causes it to be great and that which is most important: Its moral values.”
Macron’s ridicule was obviously directed only at Trump but Trump reacted mildly again. He reaffirmed his willingness to maintain the NATO alliance as long as other nations share the burden, saying that Macron understands this.
Macron will soon succeed Merkel as the EU’s political leader. But he can’t do as much as Merkel did, nor will he be as effective.
The EU is completely occupied now by the coming end to the Brexit drama. Through Michel Barnier, the French politician leading the EU’s negotiating team, Macron’s influence may increase. Because the “final” Brexit deal will be as hard on the UK as the EU can manage — and because the “final” deal may fail in the UK parliament — Macron will share the credit for what promises to be a very negative outcome with Merkel, any blame going to hapless UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
The EU is beset with other problems that are equally serious. The EU commission has disapproved Italy’s budget because that nation carries too much debt. Hungary has rebelled against the EU’s demands that it admit what the EU believes is its share of immigrants from Africa and the Middle East. And none of its members — almost all of which are NATO members — are lining up to increase their defense spending.
When Macron does become the titular leader of the EU, he may find it a very uncomfortable — and unstable — base upon which to continue his rhetorical war against Trump. But continue it he will.
Macron’s rhetorical war against Trump can only go so far. And, so far, Macron hasn’t taken any serious action to distance himself from NATO. In 1966, French President Charles de Gaulle withdrew his country’s armed forces from NATO command. (They rejoined in 2009.)
Macron, as much as he may wish to emulate de Gaulle, won’t go that far. He would be extremely unwise to pull French forces out of NATO command to form an independent EU military force for the simple reason that no other nations would follow suit. His call for an independent EU army will go precisely nowhere.
Macron will continue to be a thorn in Trump’s side. But that’s the principal role French presidents have played historically. If he goes much farther than he has, he will render himself a player in a comic opera.
Trump has weathered this minor storm well. After being criticized for missing a ceremony at one of the large cemeteries, he spoke at length — and in the rain, unsheltered by an umbrella — at another.
If you will permit me an aside, the president needs to do more to honor our troops. So far, Trump hasn’t visited Afghanistan to spend time with our troops in harm’s way. Bush 43 visited Iraq or Afghanistan five times. Even Obama went to Afghanistan four times.
Spend Thanksgiving Day with the troops in Afghanistan, Mr. President. Help serve them a turkey dinner. That act will do them a very good turn. They deserve it.