Distant Liaisons

What Went Wrong Between France and Central Europe?

29 January 2020

French President Emmanuel Macron is set to visit Warsaw in early February, after a conspicuously long break in high-level diplomatic encounters between France and Poland. Last year, Macron’s desire for a strategic reset in relations with Russia caused a ruckus in Central Europe. Given the deteriorated contact with the region, what can we expect from the French president’s upcoming travel to Poland?

Last week, a select group of diplomats and experts joined us for a V/I Breakfast format meeting about France and Central Europe. Our invited guest was Dr Thomas Gomart, a French historian and a renowned expert of Russia. Since 2015, he serves as Director of the French Institute of International Relations (IFRI), the main foreign policy think tank in France.

V/I Breakfast Meeting #13 with Thomas Gomart

IFRI operates independently from the French government but is well placed to disentangle President Macron’s priorities for Central Europe and how relations could be strengthened with the region. We asked Thomas Gomart about the perception of the V4 in Paris and how the region could find ways to engage with a French-led and ongoing conversation about the future of Europe.

Russian rapprochement

In the upcoming months, Central Europe looks to France for a breakthrough on the issue of the next Multiannual Financial Framework (MFF) and the EU enlargement question. Yet, Paris appears to have a different agenda in mind. Emmanuel Macron’s talk about internal cohesion within the EU takes a distinct meaning in light of China’s strategic threat and managing a challenging relationship with Russia.

While the perception bides in the V4 capitals that they are less important to France than in the past, IFRI’s Director Thomas Gomart believes the French president has not forgotten about Central Europe. New balances within the EU after Brexit and the particular identity of the region make it a key focus in the upcoming years.

Is there a risk of a major rapprochement with Russia over the heads of Central Europe? What Emmanuel Macron said about the need for Europe to reach out to Russia, in August last year, was a misreading of the president’s view according to Gomart.

“There is no naivety concerning Russia and a lot of strategic resources are dedicated to deal with this challenging situation. Russia represents a difficult but manageable relation.”

Vladimir Putin

Each French presidency starts with diplomatic calls to Washington, Berlin and Moscow. Macron gave a strong signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin by receiving him in Versailles in 2017.

Russia is important because France has a new security architecture in mind to deal with questions of nuclear weapons and arms control at the international level. Gomart sees a lack of strategic thinking about this issue in Germany and suggests a European approach is needed, so the discussion is not just between the US, Russia, China. Hence, conversations with Russia about security and disarmament cannot be avoided. Moreover, there is need for a new system that could build trust and stability between military powers.

This need for a new institutional layer is accompanied by the idea in France that cooperation with Russia is needed on a select number of issues where there are shared interests. “France experienced a series of attacks on its soil in recent years. Jihadist provocation remains the priority.”

The prospect of bringing back jihadists and their families from Syria is a real security concern, as well as the Iranian nuclear deal. “Russia is not a friendly country, definitely not in North Africa, but we have to be realistic about the present situation. The absence of the US makes engagement with Russia necessary.”

Different scale

Thomas Gomart appears at pains to show that the Central European perception of being overlooked may be due to France’s global strategic outlook. “For us, the main challenge is China in the Indo-Pacific. We have territorial possession in the region and 1,5 million inhabitants who require protection. We’re at risk of losing land without war.” Since 2008, France has a partnership with the Emirates, India and Australia to improve regional security. In addition, it has links with Japan to defend the freedom of navigation.

While France does not have the capabilities for a larger presence in the region, Gomart thinks this strategic agenda is used as a signal to European allies (Germany in particular). “There is a world east of Suez. Germany wants open trade without taking the security of communication and transport into account.”

The last couple of years have shown that the balance of power is increasingly in favour of China. While businesses continue to push for the Chinese market, because of its size, there is a growing risk of a hegemonic project coming from China. “We are talking about digital authoritarianism and political conditionality. Paris’ reading is changing, and steps are being taken to curtail Chinese influence.” Gomart takes a historical perspective on these events, referring to the early modern era and how Chinese investments in harbours on the side of the Atlantic Ocean mirror the age of European discovery.

“The Chinese have a systemic approach and the ability to divide Europeans. I can see a situation in the future where European countries will be forced to choose between the US and China, which will lead to a split between countries.”

Some EU member states have already accepted Chinese investments in critical sectors – consider Huawei and 5G. Gomart is cautious and thinks additional steps are needed to filter any Chinese investments. In terms of negotiations, the EU needs to drive a harder bargain and obtain greater and more equitable access to the Chinese market. However, there will be attempts from the Chinese side to get Europe to choose its camp against the US.

How to act on our own?

Hence, the French relationship with Central Europe is better understood when seen through the prism of global strategic challenges. Paris is concerned with its own as well as Europe’s scope for action in these circumstances. “Do we think that Europe could act on its own and manage a situation like in Syria? I feel there is a risk the EU might disappear.” Thomas Gomart worries about how competition between the US and China may happen at the expense of the EU.

Therefore, there is a need to think at the European level how to make foreign policy a more effective tool. “France experiences fatigue with the current institutional approach of the EU and wants the means to react more quickly.” Macron favours intergovernmentalism in this field because it has worked better in situations such as Ukraine and Syria:

“However, we welcome the idea of a more geopolitical commission, or even better, a geo-economics one, because even trade policy should be about strategic autonomy.”

Gomart also evokes the prospect of Britain leaving the European Union, “a disaster because of the interconnected security policy.” Brexit has also meant a turning point from the perspective of enlargement. “The idea of growing ever more numerous has ended, and the question of internal cohesion takes priority now.” According to Gomart, the French president has concluded that he was too ambitious with Europe in terms of integration.

“Macron wanted to move towards closer integration before dealing with enlargement. He sees the political evolution within countries, such as the populist push in France and elsewhere, as a more immediate threat. And the solution to this problem is not enlargement.”

Although the French presidency is aware that the prospect of enlargement is important to the Western Balkans, the mood in Paris is unlikely to change. “From the French perspective, the EU is a house without doors and windows. We never wanted the EU to be limitless but to take borders into consideration. We need to agree on migration before taking further steps on enlargement.”

The French stance on enlargement clearly pits it against the V4 demand to keep the prospect open of the Western Balkan countries joining the EU. Angela Merkel’s recent opening towards a deal on starting EU membership talks with Albania and North Macedonia is intended to add pressure on President Macron.

In response, Gomart recalls the French concern over the Eastern Partnership: “The EU designed it as a technocratic instrument while in practice it was a geopolitical move, at least how it was understood in Russia. This was seen as a big mistake and a major cause for the present situation in Ukraine.”

Relationship reset

While French hesitation with enlargement appears to have less to do with questions of rule of law, the present circumstances in Poland are a cause for concern in Paris:

“The differences between Poland and France do not concern differences of interest but a discrepancy in their respective outlook. France wants a major reform of the EU while Poland appears status-quo oriented.”

Gomart considers that the lack of initiative and ambition coming from Warsaw – a desire to retain cohesion funds under the next MFF but hold off from deepening integration – is the primary obstacle to a better relationship with France.

The upcoming visit of Emmanuel Macron to Warsaw may aid to break the pattern of a deteriorating relationship; a possible reset between Poland and France could unblock a number of agenda points related to the future of Europe. However, much will depend on the extent to which France’s global outlook can be reconciled with the region’s priorities regarding the EU’s long-term budget and the Union’s enlargement to the Western Balkans.

Quincy Cloet

Dr Quincy R. Cloet is a specialist in the history and politics of international organisations, based in Poland. He is an award-winning historian with academic and media publications in the areas of international politics, history, European studies and human rights.


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