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How the Wagner revolt set back Macron’s vision of a strategically autonomous Europe

French President Emmanuel Macron is banging the drum again for European autonomy, less than three months after he made similar comments following his trip to Beijing. The reaction to those remarks highlighted divisions in the European Union over its China policy and suggested cracks in the US-EU alliance amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“For me, it’s very important to have a much more autonomous Europe and European Union. Why? Because it’s useful for the global order. I think it’s useful even for the US. It’s useful to have a more powerful Europe being in capacity to fix conflicts at its border,” Macron told CNN in Paris last week.

The optics and tone of the interview, which some see as Macron’s policy statement on key issues, reflect a distinct contour emerging among European leaders, including German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, who has also shown an eagerness to chart a rather more independent approach for his country on global issues. These leaders see the multipolarisation of the world as a new reality that cannot be denied or ignored.

They also advocate for Europe’s role as a pole in this multipolar world. They assert the imperative of Europe maintaining an autonomous stance to safeguard its interests rather than succumbing to the whims and dictates of external forces. This emerging perspective heralds a shift in European politics, one in which leaders such as Macron, Scholz, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez and European Council President Charles Michel could take centre stage.

This cluster of leaders, while still small, offers the continent a fresh direction – embracing multipolarity while asserting Europe’s independence in shaping its destiny.

Macron has been advocating the notion of EU strategic autonomy for years, positioning it as the third superpower alongside the United States and China. His persistent endorsement of an autonomous EU resonates with an evolving thinking – both in Europe and elsewhere – that the West should desist from automatically viewing global issues through Washington’s lens.

Macron, alongside other like-minded European leaders, finds himself trapped in the cross hairs of a rapidly unfolding global schism. This unsettling predicament has prompted them to accelerate their strategic realignment, seeking to swiftly adapt to this new phenomenon.

“There is a big risk of a global divide because of the war in Ukraine and the whole dynamic, and this divide is the West against the rest. And this narrative is pushed by some big countries, I would say for several reasons,” warned Macron in the interview.

Europe stands at a critical juncture, forced to forge its own path towards securing peace within its borders and beyond. The need to develop a robust capacity for maintaining regional stability has become clear to European leaders like Macron. By seeking to emancipate themselves from relying too much on any one country, like-minded European leaders are showing a keenness to shore up their strategic sovereignty.

This drive for independence is rooted in the fundamental realisation that while the world is increasingly polarised by Washington’s obsession with the China threat, not all US allies are ready to sacrifice their economic interests on the altar of Sino-US rivalry. Macron’s approach resonates with this as he advocates for a Europe that can stand independently in terms of technology, defence, energy and the essential pillars of daily life.

Macron envisions a Europe capable of withstanding any challenge on its own, unaffected by the decisions of a United States that may be going in the opposite direction. In this narrative, the goal is not to isolate Europe or detach it from the global community, but to fortify its autonomy and resilience. Although Macron’s approach is the right one, the timing of his search for support among fellow European colleagues is inopportune.

The Ukraine war, already a deterrent against like-minded European leaders openly rallying behind his cause, has seen the possibility of its trajectory being altered in Kyiv’s favour after the mutiny last month by the Wagner private mercenary group against Russian President Vladimir Putin.

It has generated a new confidence in Kyiv and European capitals that Putin’s authority is weakening and raised questions about his ability to win the war, but also aroused concern that a too-weak Putin could bring fresh chaos to Europe. “He is clearly losing the war,” said US President Joe Biden. “He is losing the war at home, and he has become a bit of a pariah around the world.”

The episode has served as a catalyst, amplifying the message that aligning with the US and standing firmly behind Ukraine is crucial in the face of shifting geopolitical dynamics. For the US and its allies, it is an opportunity to seize the narrative and harness it to their advantage. They are leveraging the Wagner incident not only to showcase the threats around Putin’s regime but also to invigorate transatlantic cooperation and solidarity and to mobilise greater support for Ukraine’s war effort.

Under such circumstances, Macron may have to stop banging the drum for EU strategic autonomy for a while, at least until Putin can effectively reassert his full authority over Russia. Ironically, a strong Putin would give Macron’s endeavours a boost, reinvigorating his push for strategic autonomy and igniting a surge in multilateralism.

Source: SCMP