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Will Europe heed Macron’s ‘death’ warning?

Seven years on from his last speech at Sorbonne, the tone was much darker. Photo: Getty

April 26, 2024 - 3:00pm

The French poet Paul Valery wrote in 1919: “We modern civilizations have learned to recognise that we are mortal like the others.” In the aftermath of a bloody continental war, Valery argued that what we took for granted — European civilisation and nation-states such as France or Russia — could well be wiped out and relegated to the history books as were the Babylonians centuries ago.

Yesterday French President Emmanuel Macron, in his first speech to the Sorbonne University since 2017, channelled his inner Valery: “We must be lucid about the fact that our Europe, today, is mortal. She can die. She can die and it only depends on our choices.”

With war at the EU’s borders and with Europeans incapable of meeting Ukraine’s needs despite its best efforts — France’s annual production of shells would be depleted in less than a week by the Ukrainians, let alone the Russians — Macron shared a much darker speech than his first iteration in 2017.

And while Russia is the current direct threat to Europe’s stability, the French President painted a larger picture of Europe at risk of being relegated far behind China and the United States, two countries mentioned more often than both Russia or Ukraine, if it continues to be a geopolitical playing field rather than an actor in its own right. For him, both countries “have decided to no longer respect the rule of international trade”, especially since America’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Macron has arguably been one of the most far-sighted leaders in Europe with his relentless drive to build the continent’s strategic autonomy. Declaring in 2017 that “this era when Europe bought its energy and fertilisers from Russia, produced in China, delegated its security to the United States of America, is over,” might now sound obvious. However, making that pitch for Europe to think of itself as a strategic actor in its own right seven years ago constituted a strong break with traditional thinking in Europe.

But the issues with Macron’s (very long) speeches are twofold. Firstly, while the President styles himself as a European visionary, he remains the French President first. Yesterday’s speech was also a de facto campaign speech weeks before the European elections to help the flailing campaign of his Renaissance party. Along with his geopolitical commentary, he called for a tax on financial transactions, European preference for defence procurement and the suspension of some competition rules. This is a laundry list of historic French policy goals that will raise serious opposition in European capitals, not least in Berlin.

Secondly, making a rigorous intellectual case for strategic autonomy is one thing, but getting everyone on board is a different matter. Until very recently France had largely overlooked the importance of Central and Eastern Europe in its grand continental vision. Yet, Macron’s repeated calls to integrate Russia into a larger European security architecture, sometimes even after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, made many of the former Soviet satellite states republics very sceptical of the seriousness of his project.

While there have been policy wins — the €750-billion Covid recovery fund and the creation of a common debt instrument dubbed Europe’s “Hamiltonian moment” are undeniable successes for Macron’s vision for Europe — seven years after the first Sorbonne speech, one could argue that he has been more of a prophet of strategic autonomy than its usher. It was not Macron but Vladimir Putin who made Europeans wake up to their energy dependence on Russia and Covid which made clear Europe’s reliance on Chinese goods.

Yesterday’s speech painted a dark but lucid view of the continent. But it remains to be seen if it will have a serious impact on future European policymaking.


François Valentin is co-host of the Uncommon Decency podcast and a Senior Researcher at Onward’s Social Fabric Programme.

Valen10Francois

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David L
David L
22 days ago

If Europe is dying, its because its elites have spent decades killing it.

William Cameron
William Cameron
21 days ago
Reply to  David L

Why do we vote for them ?

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
20 days ago

The Illusion of Democracy.

Alex Lekas
Alex Lekas
22 days ago

And while Russia is the current direct threat to Europe’s stability,
Is it, though? Not long ago, Russia was Europe’s largest provider of affordable energy. Putin has been in power for more than 20 years without attacking the West, and this conflict could have ended about two years ago. Europe, meanwhile, has actively participated in the authoring of its own demise by actively importing people who are openly hostile to its traditions and way of life.

Michael Cazaly
Michael Cazaly
22 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Regrettably you seem not to have got the memo which says that Russia is ALWAYS the cause of whatever problems trouble “the West”, which itself is perfectly pure and good.
Mere facts are not allowed to influence company policy on that and it will be repeated in every article and news item permitted to be published.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
21 days ago
Reply to  Alex Lekas

Not to mention destroying its own nuclear energy industry even before ‘Putin’s unprovoked and illegal invasion of Ukraine’ (I believe that’s the officially accepted terminology?).

Matt M
Matt M
22 days ago

It’s all nonsense and has been since the 1950s when this fantasy of “Europe” first got going. There is no Europe. There are only nation states on the continent of Europe.
The USA and China underwent civil wars (two in the USA’s case, tens of them in China’s) to create homogenous nations. No such reckoning has ever happened in Europe, thank God!
There is no such thing as a European citizen. The Europeans do not see themselves as one people anymore than Zimbabweans and Moroccans do because they are both from the continent of Africa.
No Hungarian will fight for Greece. No Frenchman willingly pays the welfare bill of the Finns. And the Brits will never accept another country’s courts telling them what laws they will obey or who can live in their country.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
22 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

“Brits will never accept another country’s courts”;

We have Jewish and Sharia courts operating and a Sikh one has just been set up. The ECHR is the least of our problems.

Matt M
Matt M
22 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

ECHR and ECJ affect me. If some Muslims want to submit to their local Imams about religious law, that’s their lookout. But they aren’t real courts of law. Subjugating British law to foreign courts is terrible.

Mike Downing
Mike Downing
22 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

But supposing you have a legal run in with a Muslim and they want to settle it by Sharia law, what do you do then?

Matt M
Matt M
22 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

I don’t think they can do that, can they? I thought it was just for two Muslims to sort out contracts with each other and religious rules. Muslims in Britain are still bound by British law. Sharia courts are voluntary have real legal jurisdiction.

Matt M
Matt M
21 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Typo above – should have said NO real legal jurisdiction

William Cameron
William Cameron
21 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

No one can make you use other than UK law. But given the fact that it’s too expensive to use UK law for most people- one can see how alternative dispute resolution process might be attractive.

John Franco
John Franco
21 days ago
Reply to  Mike Downing

Those are arbitration courts. I imagine, like the US, you have to agree to arbitration before the fact.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
22 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Well, I agree, but you’ve got the history quite wrong. The quest to unite all of Europe, or “Christendom”, or the old Western Roman Empire, has been going on for quite a while actually. Indeed, attempts to remake the western Roman Empire began almost immediately after it fell. Prior to the 1950’s, the people who tried to unite it did so almost exclusively in the traditional manner, that is by military conquest. One of them, Charlemagne, actually succeeded, but alas he divided his kingdom among his heirs as was the custom of his people, and people have been trying to replicate his achievement ever since. Charles V, Philip II, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Bismarck. The chain of hopping from one potential Charlemagne to the next is hardly broken over twelve centuries.
The EU is simply the modern attempt. Like most things modern it pretends civility by eliminating the ugliness of war, yet with or without the violence beforehand, the underlying nature of the imperial model, the suppressing the local and tribal wants, needs, and cultures of disparate peoples to the ruthless efficiency and economy of imperial ambition remains. It cannot be dispelled by any modern magic. So it is that you are correct. The EU project will probably be doomed by the same thing that doomed all the other, more traditional attempts, that is people will, in one way or another, resist the force of empire. As you say, French will not pay for Finns nor will Hungarians fight for Greece. Let us be hopeful that such political resistance and resentments will be sufficient to scuttle the imperial ambitions of men like Macron. War is a much more dangerous business these days.
Further, the US is not a homogeneous nation and never has been. American history is marked by almost constant fighting between various religious, ethnic, political, and regional interests since the founding. I assume when you say two civil conflicts you’re referring to the American Revolution and the Civil War. Those are simply the only two times where the fighting has risen to the level of violence. The conflict short of violence is basically a constant. There’s always been some state or group of states fighting some other group about one thing or another. There’s always been tension between racial and religious groups. American politics has usually been a cesspool of name-calling, corruption, and decisions made in smoke filled rooms by the powerful and the wealthy. America practically invented election fraud. Almost all the methods used by tin horn dictators in banana republics came directly from the playbooks of the American political party machines that operated a century ago and earlier. The fact that it seems unusual to Europeans and even many Americans is simply recency bias. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what America really is. Best get used to it.

Matt M
Matt M
22 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Good stuff Steve. Completely agree.

Andrew Holmes
Andrew Holmes
21 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

I’d go a step further. I doubt that European nations are, if of any size, homogenous. It seems to me that the human nature is to clump into subgroups and then rejoice in competing with the rest. The US, where I live, is normally contentious, like everyone else. At the same time, the image of a melting pot speaks to an imperfect reality, one to my knowledge is unmatched elsewhere.

Peter B
Peter B
21 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Unfortunately you’re wrong about the courts. We have accepted external courts dictating and overruling our laws.

Andrew Chanerleycalabrese
Andrew Chanerleycalabrese
21 days ago
Reply to  Matt M

Are you Boris Johnson by any chance ?

Matt
Matt
22 days ago

The source of European instability is the US, much as I hate to admit it. Regime change in Ukraine, continually pushing NATO east. Putin made it clear that he wouldn’t have his borders threatened, and was ignored. I suppose blame should also be assigned to the NATO members that signed off on expansion, but we all know who’s driving that boat.
Macron has always seemed to be a bit of an America-phile(?!). When Trump threatened to change our relationship with Europe because hegemony had become way too one sided of a deal, and the leaders of Europe lost their minds, Macron was the only one to admit that the US is, in fact, getting screwed. And here, he doesn’t put the blame on us though it clearly belongs here at least in large part. Not sure how I’d feel about that if I lived in France or anywhere in Europe.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
22 days ago

The biggest threat to Europe is the EU and irrational policies that make it weaker economically.

Adrian Smith
Adrian Smith
22 days ago

Europe won’t die and there is no real threat that it will – it is a massive and wealthy continent which may not be thriving as well as it used to, but is far from death’s door.
The EU may die and I hope it does, but these things have a way of preserving themselves long past their natural expiration dates. It is a pernicious political project, which does not genuinely care about the needs of the ordinary people of Europe only in preserving the power of the elites which relies on the survival of the project.

William Cameron
William Cameron
21 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

Europe doesnt exist- other than as a description of a land mass.

Andrew Chanerleycalabrese
Andrew Chanerleycalabrese
21 days ago

Another Soviet talking rubbish

Andrew Chanerleycalabrese
Andrew Chanerleycalabrese
21 days ago
Reply to  Adrian Smith

The biggest threat to the EU has been and is still the UK. It betrayed the EU after 50 years of good trade and harmonious relations by leaving in such an acrimonious manner. But much worse than that, the UK’s Brexit emboldened Putin, the Russian tyrant, to invade the Ukraine. The Brits’ Brexit caused disarray in Europe diverting attention away from Russian preparations for invasion in spite of warnings from Eastern European EU countries. It was gross stupidity and negligence on the part of the Tories and Johnson in particular. Now the Ukrainians are dying thanks to Britannia’s nutcase politicians and the rest of the EU is next, betrayed by the Tory Brits.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
22 days ago

One of the biggest sticking points on the way to Europe becoming any kind of geopolitical force is getting its finances sorted out and the architecture of the euro completed. The moment for the latter has, I fear, passed. As for the former, France is a big problem child with its out of control public finances. Sinking in debt and still hosting the Olympics? Not too bright an idea from this purported visionary.
I think he has good ideas, but so often it’s just blah blah and I just think he should get his own house in order first before giving any more grand speeches.

Diane T
Diane T
21 days ago
Reply to  Katharine Eyre

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
22 days ago

Fascinating that the man talks so much about European sovereignty and European destiny while importing millions of people from Africa and the Middle East. I don’t understand why anyone takes this man seriously. He’s the poster boy of globalism but he’ll try to use nationalist sentiment to get things he wants or to get elected. He can’t be gone soon enough. I rate Macron the fourth worse global leader. Xi Jinping is the worst by several orders of magnitude, then Putin, Trudeau, and Macron.

Mike Michaels
Mike Michaels
21 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

Whoa what about Dementia Joe?

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
20 days ago
Reply to  Mike Michaels

Joe hasn’t been nearly as bad as those. Macron himself blames Joe’s inflation reduction act for basically betraying the principles of globalism. He isn’t wrong. Biden has stepped back from doctrinal globalism, mostly because he sees which way the political wind is blowing. You see Joe Biden never has had much in the way of principles. He’s been a finger in the wind politician and a Washington insider since the 70s. Practically the only consistency in his decades in office has been a consistent support for and deference to the military. His China policy, and most of Trump’s for that matter, was probably written in some Pentagon office a decade and a half ago. He’s also very old and his faculties have declined so what we really have is actually a lot like the Trump administration, where policy is decided by whichever advisor is in charge of which issue or whoever is on the President’s good side this week. Joe is far from ideal but don’t kid yourself. It could be worse, a lot worse.

Andrew Chanerleycalabrese
Andrew Chanerleycalabrese
21 days ago
Reply to  Steve Jolly

The Tory ERG and Johnson, now a post Brexit millionaire, are as bad as either of the first three and their supporters? but much worse than Macron. When Macron speaks Europe listens, when Sunak. Boris or Teresa or any other Tory PM were to speak nobody listens.

Peter B
Peter B
21 days ago

A Frenchman complaining that other countries “don’t play by the rules of international trade” !!! Yes, those famous champions of free trade. The ones who never created industrial scale protectionism like the CAP.
What Macron is about – as ever – is putting forward specious arguments to persuade other European countries to continue to subsidise its “exorbitant privilege” (to reuse a phrase from Giscard d’Estaing).

Brian Kneebone
Brian Kneebone
21 days ago

Is Putin, using other names, a serial comment poster on Unherd. He sure gets a good rating. Putin for PM and let us invade and reclaim the Irish Republic to prevent creeping EU encroachment.

Rocky Martiano
Rocky Martiano
20 days ago
Reply to  Brian Kneebone

Nice try at deflection but I suspect the EU has no intention of stationing troops and missiles pointing at London in Wexford and Cork. While the ‘purely defensive’ NATO alliance…..

john d rockemella
john d rockemella
20 days ago

Bureaucrats and elitist globalist non democratic persons to blame