Recent speeches by French President Emmanuel Macron and Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski show just how much European thinking has changed since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022. With German Chancellor Olaf Scholz endorsing Macron’s basic message, a more dynamic, coherent foreign policy for the European Union may be at hand.
Macron himself has come a long way. Back in 2019, he famously warned that Nato was becoming “brain dead” and called for greater strategic autonomy for Europe, even openly contesting US policies (and not just those of the Trump administration). While many thought he had blundered, his misdiagnosis had positive consequences. After all, even if Nato wasn’t brain dead, it was at least comatose, with most European members having disarmed since the Soviet Union’s collapse. Europe did need to learn to stand on its own two feet.
Since then, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (following its seizure of Ukrainian territory in 2014) has revived Nato and even led to the alliance’s enlargement, with the recent addition of Finland and Sweden. Moreover, Europe has begun to devise its own joint defence policy, buying weapons collectively, coordinating more efficiently, and matching the United States in its military and economic support for Ukraine.
The main message of Macron’s latest speech was straightforward: “Our Europe is mortal. It can die.” This resonates with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s own warnings that Europe is now in a “pre-war era”. Moreover, by describing Europe as a common liberal-democratic project spanning from Lisbon to Odesa, Macron gave a strong nod to Ukraine’s eventual EU membership.
Europe faces threats not only to its security (from Russia), but also to its prosperity, owing to disruptions in global energy markets, US and Chinese protectionist and industrial policies, and other factors. In keeping with his tendency to launch revolutionary projects, Macron has now called for a doubling of the EU budget, with significant increases in public spending on artificial intelligence, quantum computing, space technologies, biotechnology, and energy.
That proposal is sure to upset the Germans, as are Macron’s ideas about creating European corporate “champions,” establishing a “European preference” in defence procurement, and assigning the European Central Bank an additional mandate to support growth, in addition to fighting inflation. And yet, something has changed in the recently deteriorating Franco-German relationship. Immediately after Macron’s speech, Scholz tweeted: “France and Germany both want Europe to remain strong. Your speech contains good ideas on how to achieve this,...Together we are moving the EU forward: politically and economically. For a sovereign and innovative EU. Long live Europe!”
In his own speech before the Polish Sejm (parliament) on April 25, Sikorski went even further. Like Macron, he believes that, “The Union must become a geopolitical actor equal to other international powers,” and he has called for reforms to move the European Council away from strictly unanimous decision-making. “Poland and the Polish people deserve to be one of the leaders in the process of further European integration,” he declared. “A leader is, by definition, someone who can achieve their goals in a way that will win them supporters. ...Poland has this potential.”
If Macron and Sikorski’s speeches rhymed, that is partly because Polish foreign policy is finally coming back into alignment with that of its closest allies. The broad transatlantic consensus is that defence policy must stand on two legs: American and European. This realisation has dawned even on Germany, which is now Ukraine’s most important European supporter.
For Poland (and the Baltic states), Europe’s strategic sea change is obviously a welcome development, given their proximity to Russia. It was therefore gratifying to hear Sikorski repeatedly and explicitly mention Polish-German rapprochement in his speech.
Sikorski also outlined Poland’s priorities for its presidency of the EU, which starts at the beginning of 2025. It will focus on security and the supranational fight against populism. Poland has much credibility and soft power on the latter issue, given its recent experience enduring the illiberal Law and Justice (PiS) government, before voters rejected it decisively in last October’s election.
The restoration of normality since then has felt like a slowly grinding revolution, because the Polish electorate remains effectively divided into two parts with opposite foreign policies. Even Poland’s “Second Republic” (1918-39), which was quickly pieced together at World War I’s end to right the eighteenth-century partitions by Prussia and the Habsburg and Russian empires, did not have such opposing policies. While warring Polish factions clipped each other’s wings, their strategic outlooks were broadly complementary. Later, everyone agreed that Józef Piłsudski, the leader of the Socialists, gave Poland its eastern border, and Roman Dmowski, the leader of the Nationalists, who participated in the Versailles conference, gave the country its western border.
Whatever one thinks of Dmowski, he had a strategic concept, and did not merely pursue a foreign policy of sheer resentment, as PiS’s leader Jarosław Kaczyński has done vis-à-vis Germany. Historically, when the Germans were clearly the biggest threat to Poland, seeking dialogue with Russia made a kind of sense (odd as it is now to think that the Polish right was traditionally pro-Russian).
Today, the roles are reversed: Russia is the main threat, and Germany is an obvious potential friend and partner for Poland. To continue leaning on 1930s-era clichés about the Germans is not only anachronistic; it is dangerous idiocy. The map on which Kaczyński operates exists only in his head.
The new messages emanating from Europe augur a reactivation of the post-1991 Weimar Triangle (France, Germany, and Poland). But it will no longer be just a regional or symbolic alliance; rather, should it hold, it will become the new engine of the EU, as well as a new pillar of support for Polish sovereignty. — Project Syndicate
• Sławomir Sierakowski, founder of the Krytyka Polityczna movement, is a Mercator senior fellow.