Written by Ilay Levinshtein
Macron’s European Intervention Initiative and the shaping of a parallel European defence policy
In recent years, the European Union (EU) saw several geopolitical developments that consolidated the idea that the Union needs to become militarily stronger and enhance its defence capabilities. This notion was largely presented in a speech by French President Emanuel Macron in 2017 at the Sorbonne University, throughout which he articulated Europe’s need to secure its geopolitical interests through military cooperation between Member States and to enhance EU-wide defence capabilities, whilst referring to China and Russia as immanent security threats and defining the uncertainty pertaining to US defence guarantees towards Europe (Le Figaro, 2018). This considered, it is apparent that Macron pursues an ambition to instate France as the leader of the European defence mechanism, a feat he wishes to achieve through the establishment of the European Intervention Initiative (EI2), announced during his Sorbonne speech. By announcing and promoting the EI2, Macron intends to reshape the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP) so as to refit it to current realities on the European continent and beyond.
This article argues that under President Macron, France launched the EI2 as part of its ambition to establish the EU as a global military actor characterised by military independence from external actors, namely the US, an ambition that sees Paris taking the reins of European military and defence interests. In doing so, Macron effectively tries to develop European defence strategy and military capabilities that go beyond the scope of the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). To support this claim, this article will examine how France wishes to secure European military autonomy and why it hopes to create a separate framework from PESCO in the form of the EI2.
A changing geopolitical landscape and the need for a stronger EU
Several geopolitical events affecting the European continent and the EU changed the way European leaders perceive the current security and defence reality. Among them, Brexit, China’s surging influence in both military and economic terms, and growing fears of Russian military aggression have been the most impactful developments. Post-Brexit Europe saw France and Germany becoming the remaining salient military powers able to lead the EU’s security and defence strategy, as well as the main actors capable of forging a stronger and more integrated EU in military terms (Huntley, 2020). Meanwhile, the Russian invasion of Ukraine, coupled with concerns regarding U.S. commitment to Europe’s security and deteriorating ties in the U.S.-French bilateral relations amid the AUKUS deal (CSIS, 2021), further strengthened France’s perception as to the importance of promoting European military and defence autonomy (Huntley, 2020; Weber, 2022a).
These events effectively constituted an important momentum for Macron to pursue his ambitions for a military-independent Europe as soon as he took office in 2017 (Weber, 2022b). One such initiative, the EI2, will be presented in order to explain how France seeks to establish the EU as a military actor with greater military projection capabilities and, in so doing, how it perceives PESCO as being ineffective.
The initiation of a new defence strategy – why?
In order to understand the importance behind the EI2 pertaining to Macron’s defence ambitions concerning European sovereignty, it is first vital to understand the French perspective of existing European defence mechanisms, such as PESCO, and how such mechanisms are viewed as insufficient to European security.
PESCO’s main purpose is to enhance Member States’ defence cooperation and to improve the capacity of CSDP-related operations (Council Decision 2017/2315). Among other goals, PESCO strives to allow for the development of defence capabilities for military operations, to optimise defence spending, and to enhance interoperability among Member States, therefore allowing the EU to act as an international security actor (EEAS, 2021). Moreover, PESCO complements two other defence-related initiatives promoted on a supranational level: The European Defence Fund and the Coordinated Annual Review on Defence, both of which support defence collaborations and opportunity assessments among Member States (Council Decision 2017/2315).
However, PESCO came under criticism for not being effective enough in terms of its decision-making process, force build-up, and deployment of forces, part of which was attributed to the bureaucratic structure of the CSDP (Sweeney & Winn, 2020). In fact, France initially intended for PESCO to be an exclusive small-scale platform for potential partners to partake in military activities, although the end result saw the founding of a large-scale mechanism consisting of 25 Member States of varying levels of defence capabilities and willingness to contribute (Huntley, 2020). Therefore, “France has a point in criticising PESCO for not yet concentrating enough on the operational side, which would require joint missions, training and exercises” (Van Eeekelen, 2018, p. 26). Most military missions conducted by the EU are small in scale and impact, whereas any large-scale operations are those in collaboration with NATO, further highlighting the EU’s limited military influence (Tangor, 2021). This considered, it is evident that the French government sought to establish a defensive alternative to PESCO and to lead a more active defence policy that would also align with France’s historical ambition for a more sovereign Europe in military terms.
Enter the European Intervention Initiative
Owing to PESCO’s perceived drawbacks and failures to bring about the materialisation of enhanced European military capabilities, the French government under Macron proposed an exclusive club. The goal of such a club would be to bring together European states, whether they are Member States or not, that are politically willing and militarily capable of undertaking military missions and to increase European operability and force projection (Van Eekelen, 2018). In light of these developments, and in an effort to address the inherent issues that began plaguing PESCO, Macron announced the launch of the EI2 in his famous Sorbonne speech in 2017 (Macron, 2017; Huntley, 2020).
The general goal behind the EI2 is that other countries, regardless of whether they are Member States and participating in the CSDP or not, will be able to take part in military interventions and stabilisation operations (Sweeney & Winn, 2020). In this respect, eleven participant countries have signed onto Macron’s EI2 since 2019: France, Germany, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Estonia, Portugal, Italy, Finland, and the UK (PRP, 2019).
Although the EI2 shares the same goals and ambitions of the CSDP, NATO, and PESCO, in terms of enhancing European defence capabilities, it still departs from the traditional defence strategy promoted by them, further stressing the French ambition of leading the EU and the European continent towards military autonomy. Such ambitions become more evident through the French vision of integrating several PESCO projects into the EI2 framework; an issue that sparked German concerns that France might seek to achieve its own national ambitions through the EI2 by undermining European efforts towards enhanced coordination and capability, as well as eroding European solidarity by designating the EI2 as an exclusive club (Nicolas, 2018; Sweeney & Winn, 2020; Huntely, 2022). In this respect, it is evident that the EI2 is inherently different from PESCO, seeing as it revolves around the notion of military intervention, and some of its military scopes include intelligence sharing, scenario development and planning, support to operations and setting doctrine, and more (Sweeney & Winn, 2020). As a consequence, France perceived such a goal possible by accepting only states that are militarily capable of engaging in such tasks.
Furthermore, Macron stated that he views the NATO alliance as being hindered by US ambivalence and plagued by the failure of European states to commit to becoming a global power; hence calling for a European post-NATO defence mechanism in the form of the EI2, which would allow the EU to develop its own military industrial base (Sweeney & Winn, 2020).
Even so, another criticism that was voiced against Macron’s project stated that the EI2 should have existed as a crisis response mechanism within the PESCO framework “in order to prevent a fragmentation of effort” in EU defence initiatives (Biscop, 2018, p.11). This criticism goes hand in hand with German concerns regarding French national ambitions as an undermining force in the defence integration of the EU.
Considering the issues discussed throughout this article, and the characteristics of the EI2, it is apparent that Macron seeks to re-establish the EU as a salient military actor that would be able to yield military projection beyond the limiting scopes of the current CSDP. In this regard, this article briefly presented the failures and limitations of PESCO, as well as the French point of view regarding overreliance on US defence guarantees, both of which affected Macron’s decision to launch the EI2 in an attempt to protect European security and defence interests according to French national perceptions. This ambition, predominantly promoted in the form of the EI2, also sees France placing itself as the leader of an active and efficient European defence community that would include a limited number of participant states willing to contribute to such a project militarily and politically. Although criticised as undermining EU solidarity and defence integration through PESCO, it is possible to conclude that France started a unique European defence integration project that may not be characterised as differentiated integration, owing to the fact that the EI2 is exclusive in nature, yet promotes a new notion of what European defence interests are, and how such interests could and should be pursued.
However, this article presents only a part of the complicated developments concerning the progress in European defence strategy and interests. Other aspects concerning the development of European defence and securitisation should be examined, seeing as France, although a dominant military actor in the context of the European continent and the EU, is not the only element shaping neither European defence frameworks nor cooperation. Importantly, it is imperative to also delve deeper into German perceptions pertaining to EU defence, and how developments within and outside the European continent may affect the readiness of other major actors in shaping the European defence reality, namely the US, Russia, and China.