Wchicken Olaf Scholz proclaimed a Time trend, or “historical turning point” for Germany, after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe was surprised. The German chancellor’s promise to invest heavily in defense, although only hesitantly implemented, marked a sharp change. Much less noticed is an equally striking change taking place in France. The implications of this turning point for Europe could be just as significant.
that of France historical turning point consists of a double inflection point. Each touches a fundamental precept. One of them is Ukraine’s accession to NATO. The other is the expansion of EUits borders to the east and south. France, once skeptical of welcoming newcomers to either group, has quietly become a defender of both.
It was near the NATO in July in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, that many of France’s astonished allies understood for the first time its new approach. France aligned itself alongside Britain, Poland and the Baltic states, arguing for a fast track to the alliance for Ukraine after the war. “We need a path to membership,” Emmanuel Macron, the French president, said in Bratislava, the Slovak capital, on May 31.
This distinguishes France not only from Germany, but also from America, “to the apparent surprise of the Biden administration,” noted Daniel Fried, a former American diplomat. In 2008, France and Germany blocked Ukraine from immediately joining the alliance. Four years ago, Mr Macron said The Economist that NATO experienced “brain death“. Even after Russia sent the tanks, Mr. Macron at times seemed as worried about his future security as he was about that of Ukraine. Yet Europe’s eastern flank has found an unexpected new champion.
The second team of France, in EU enlargement is less visible. The decision on whether or not to open accession negotiations with Ukraine (and Moldova) is not expected before December 2023, after a first discussion in October. But negotiations are well advanced, not least because such an expansion would require complex changes to the rules governing the EUthe internal organization of A Franco-German working group is studying the implications. The European Commission will report in October on enlargement, including to the Western Balkans.
France has traditionally been wary of enlargement, viewing expansion as a threat to its favored strategy of “deepening” the union and forging a political project. Britain, when still a member, was a country that was greatly expanding the Union and was therefore viewed with suspicion in Paris because it sought to turn Europe into a mere trading zone. In 2019, France vetoed the opening of accession negotiations with Albania and North Macedonia.
The war in Russia has transformed Mr Macron’s approach. Last year, its diplomats worked hard to build support for EUthe decision to grant candidate status to Ukraine. France lifted its veto on the applications of Albania and North Macedonia, allowing accession negotiations to begin. The heat of Mr. Macron’s speech in Bratislava stunned central and eastern Europeans, long in favor of a broader policy. EU. “The question for us is not whether we should expand,” he said, “but how we should do it.”
Many observers remain skeptical. “It was a free lunch for Macron to support Ukraine NATO accession,” argues a European diplomat, noting that France knew very well that the Americans were going to slow down. Mr. Macron’s tactical interest in defending Central and Eastern Europe is obvious, after the credibility he lost last year because of his approaches to Vladimir Putin. The line of France on the move NATO The move was also partly tactical: a strong message to Russia, he argued, would strengthen kyiv’s position in future peace negotiations.
There are, however, reasons to think that this double French shift reflects a geopolitical reassessment. Mr. Macron, pro-European at heart, has long been preoccupied with the need to strengthen what he calls “European sovereignty”: the continent’s ability to determine its future amid great-power rivalry. This concern is heightened both by the existential threat to Europe posed by an expansionist Russia and by the possibility that an America led by Donald Trump, if he wins next year’s elections, will be less engaged in in favor of European security.
France’s conclusion is that Europe “can no longer accept ‘gray zones’ between EU and Russia,” says one official. Unless the countries on the margins are anchored within the EU Or NATO, they will be vulnerable to autocratic powers. The last phase of enlargement occurred “when we thought that liberal democracy would spread and become the dominant model”, declares Laurence Boone, French Minister for Europe: “Today, it is not the case. We must therefore move on to a geopolitical construction.” Enlargement becomes a tool for consolidating European sovereignty. And a wider EU is not an alternative to a deeper political project, but a means of achieving it. “This is indeed a structural change,” said Benjamin Haddad, one of Mr. Macron’s deputies.
None of this means that enlargement will take place in the near future. Accession negotiations are progressing very slowly with four Western Balkan countries; That of Montenegro began more than ten years ago. The absorption of Ukraine would be complex, long and fraught with pitfalls. But it is now considered in Paris as a geopolitical imperative. Mujtaba Rahman of the Eurasia Group, a consultancy, expects EU leaders to open accession negotiations in December. France cannot alone dictate the choices of the 27-member club. But it remains a powerful guide for these decisions. It is Time trend could be crucial in determining the future shape of Europe. ■