France and the Eastern Partnership: the view from Paris

There are few signs that France will become central to building a new EU-empowered policy towards borderland countries.

France has formally supported the European Union’s Eastern Partnership (EaP), but its approach to the policy has long been ambiguous. French officials are aware of the value of the EU engaging with the former Soviet Republics who seek to move away from Russian influence, or to balance it, by having a stronger relationship with the EU. And France does not minimise or discount the soft power that the EU can and must deploy in its neighbourhood in order to promote stability. But several factors have meant that France never quite felt itself to be a strong custodian of the EaP nor a major stakeholder in it. As yet, it is unclear to what degree the Ukrainian crisis has led Paris to a reappraisal of what the EaP should become, nor is it obvious what impulses should come from France.

All this might seem a paradox in light of the fact that France, which held the presidency of the EU at the time, played a key role in the way Europe dealt with the war in Georgia in 2008. That conflict was the starting point for the EU’s new eastern policy, which was drawn up as a reaction to Russia’s actions in Georgia. But perhaps this is precisely the point: French political priorities, and the way it has tended to relate to Russia, have weighed heavily on its approach to the EaP. France has preferred to deal directly with Moscow rather than to focus on a EU-wide approach towards Russia’s neighbours. This largely explains, for example, why France had no qualms about returning EU-Russia relations more or less back to normal only a few months after the Georgia war, despite Russia’s ongoing violations of the cease-fire.

The EaP never triggered much interest or diplomatic mobilisation in Paris. In the run-up to its launch in 2009, it was seen largely as the product of Polish and Swedish priorities, at a time when French officials were privately warning against the “anti-Russian” tendencies of those countries. France, at the time, had started negotiating specific deals with Russia, including the highly controversial Mistral warship sale.

The larger historical picture should also be kept in mind: France’s policies have in many ways resulted from its clear discomfort about Germany’s growing economic and political power within Europe. Franco-German competition in the way that the EU has forged its neighbourhood strategies should not be overlooked. Paris was convinced that Germany wanted to pull the EU towards the east because of its own commercial and economic interests, whereas France has all along promoted the notion of a southern-looking EU, focused on the Mediterranean rim and on Africa, regions in which it feels many of its strategic interests lie.

In 2008, those opposing visions clashed in a major way, when France attempted to create a “Union for the Mediterranean”, a project that would have brought together Europe's coastal southern countries, North African states, and some Middle Eastern states. There was a strong backlash from Germany. Angela Merkel made it clear to French officials that if EU funds were to be tapped, then that should be conditioned on the involvement of all EU members, as well as Brussels’ institutions. Ultimately, the project foundered, crashing mostly on the new realities that emerged from the Arab Spring of 2011.

Today, France’s waning authority in Europe, mostly linked to its economic difficulties and the sense that it has been largely overtaken by Germany, makes it unlikely that Paris will put much energy into redrawing the EaP. Significant parts of French officialdom are now much more concentrated on the hard-power dimensions of Europe’s current challenges – how to strengthen Euro-Atlantic security guarantees at a time when Russia has been trampling on essential rules. In France, there is a strong conviction that the national comparative advantage over Germany, in dealing with Europe’s difficulties in the east, comes from French defence capacities and its willingness to deploy them. At the same time, France has struggled to convince anyone that its position alongside Germany in dealing with the Ukraine crisis amounted to much more than sitting in the backseat.

The war in Ukraine has served as a wake-up call in France, as it has elsewhere in Europe, but there are few signs that Paris will become central to building a new EU-empowered policy towards borderland countries. The Paris terrorist attacks have focused French minds on jihadi networks rooted in the Sahel and the Middle East. Public debate in France on Mediterranean migration issues has been intense. Debate has, however, been fragmented and divisive on the best way to deal with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Europe’s southern dimension has arguably become a bigger preoccupation in Paris than its eastern dimension. Getting France to engage more in the EaP may depend on whether a consensus can be built in the EU around the idea that the security and stability of Europe’s environment cannot be carved up into different geographical directions, but must be viewed as one single, whole problem that has to be tackled from all sides with equal motivation. Franco-German-Polish dialogue will be key to achieving that.

Natalie Nougayrède is a columnist, leader writer and foreign affairs commentator for the Guardian. She was previously executive editor and managing editor of Le Monde.

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