(Bloomberg) -- Want the lowdown on European markets? In your inbox before the open, every day. Sign up here.
French officials are shifting into overdrive as they try to capitalize on the chaos created by their boss’s latest undiplomatic offensive.
President Emmanuel Macron and his team have been working the phones since an interview was published Thursday in which he declared that NATO is dying. His comments drew fire from across the western alliance with Germany’s Angela Merkel leading the pushback. But the French are doubling down all the same and trying to press home their point that Europe needs to boost its own military capabilities.
“We are in an intense diplomatic moment,” one French aide said, declining to elaborate.
With Merkel’s authority waning in Germany and the U.K. heading for the exit, 41-year-old Macron has been making an increasingly naked bid to establish himself as the European Union’s de facto leader.
By regularly positioning himself as an outlier in the EU leader’s council, it’s been Macron dictating the terms of the U.K.’s successive Brexit extensions, Macron blocking accession talks for North Macedonia and Albania, and Macron leading the outreach to Vladimir Putin of Russia.
But giving up on the military alliance that has underpinned security since World War II would take his attack on the pillars of the European project to another level.
France has always been an uncomfortable member of NATO, preferring a free hand in foreign policy. By questioning its effectiveness, Macron is forcing Europeans to assess their security options and pushing them toward his plan for more military integration. That would allow the EU to pursue an independent foreign policy that’s not beholden to the U.S. and NATO.
The final straw for Macron was President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from northern Syria last month, which allowed Turkey and Russia to carve up a critical territory in Europe’s backyard.
“The instability of our American partner and rising tensions have meant that the idea of European defense is gradually taking hold,” he said.
The French offensive comes as NATO is preparing for a summit in London next month to mark its 70th anniversary. Macron is due to have dinner with Merkel in Berlin Sunday and has a call scheduled imminently with Trump.
While Macron has fought with Trump on a range of issues from trade to climate, they have both voiced their frustrations with NATO – albeit for different reasons – and on Friday Secretary of State Michael Pompeo echoed Macron’s warnings about the future of the alliance.
Unless EU nations spend more on defense, “there’s a risk that NATO could become ineffective or obsolete,” Pompeo said in a speech in Berlin.
Suspicious of Russia
Macron’s proposal has found traction in countries including Germany, Finland and Spain. But his claim that NATO is suffering “brain death” alarmed his allies all the same.
Merkel said she was bewildered by his “drastic” comments. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told him that European integration wouldn’t have been possible without NATO.
In eastern Europe, where many people still remember the Cold War year and still feel exposed to the threat from an expansionist Russia, Macron faces the toughest task in wrestling his EU partners into line.
“Europe doesn’t have the necessary resources or the political will” to defend itself outside of NATO, Estonian Defense Minister Juri Luik told the state broadcaster Friday. Indeed, he added, French troops are part of the NATO contingent posted to Estonia “to protect the independence and sovereignty of Estonia and the whole eastern flak.”
‘The Art of War’
Upending conventions has become a signature move for the French leader, a former investment banker, who regularly finds himself out of step with the more collegial traditions of the EU leaders’ council.
Macron’s approach draws more on Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War,” the ancient Chinese military manual that became essential reading for corporate executives.
During his 2017 campaign, he frequently referred to its tactical advice, according to one adviser, and lectured his aides on the importance of surprising an adversary by improvising.
Catching his partners and rivals off guard does appear to be part of Macron’s strategy -- one European official said that even France’s foreign minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian, sometimes doesn’t know what his boss is going to announce.
When he hosted the G-7 summit in Biarritz in August, Macron sprung a visit from Iranian Foreign Mohammad Javad Zarif.
Macron staged his latest coup de teatre as Stoltenberg and Pompeo were arriving in Berlin to mark the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall with Merkel. The officials were gathering to remember a watershed moment for the western alliance and underline its critical role in Europe’s history.
Macron wasn’t even present. But he was still setting the agenda.
--With assistance from Ott Ummelas.
To contact the reporter on this story: Helene Fouquet in Paris at email@example.com
To contact the editors responsible for this story: Ben Sills at firstname.lastname@example.org, Caroline Alexander
©2019 Bloomberg L.P.