What are we actually fighting about? Germany, France, and the spectre of European autonomy

France and Germany have different priorities, but both partners come to the same conclusion: Europe must do more

NATO North Atlantic Treaty Organization Segui CC BY-NC-ND

Once again, we are witnessing Franco-German quarrels over “European autonomy”. French President Emmanuel Macron and German Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer (AKK) have gone on the offensive, supported by the media which seemed more than happy to facilitate the apparent confrontation.

In the span of a few days, AKK published an opinion piece and gave a keynote speech, while Macron gave a widely read, 10,000-word interview. Their statements were broad in scope, but addressed the issue of European defence capabilities and of European dependences on the United States. Neither side minced their words: in her op-ed, AKK called Europe’s strategic autonomy an “illusion” – which was commonly understood as an attack on Macron, the idea’s most prominent advocate. Macron stated that he “profoundly disagree[d] … with the opinion piece signed by the German Minister of Defence”, and that he considered it to be a “historical misinterpretation”. A day later, AKK appeared somewhat more conciliatory when she emphasised in her speech areas in which she and Macron agreed. But the lines seem to have been drawn.

Of course, arguments and disagreements have always been part of the Franco-German relationship. This is nothing to worry about among allies and can even help to coordinate positions. What is strange about the current discussion, however, is that, despite all the ink that has been spilled on the topic, the actual matter in dispute remains strangely unclear. If one takes a closer look, it becomes clear that AKK is forcefully rejecting something that Macron has not actually proposed. And both sides see the same need for action. So, what are we actually arguing about?

AKK says that the illusionary idea of Europe’s strategic autonomy must come to an end as Europe cannot replace America as a security guarantor. In her opinion, the idea of European autonomy goes too far “if it feeds the illusion that we could guarantee security, stability, and prosperity in Europe without NATO and the US”. The “if” in this sentence is fundamental. Because this is not how Macron defines autonomy. It is true that France, as an independent nuclear power, does not depend on the US and NATO’s nuclear umbrella quite so much. But Macron has always stressed that European defence is complementary to NATO. It is a bold interpretation to say that European autonomy aims to replace the US, or NATO, or suggests that this may be easy or desirable any time soon. Rather, Macron wants to prepare for a situation in which NATO might be unable to act, and the US unable or unwilling to help. This does not mean that he longs for such a situation, let alone wants to create it. This extreme interpretation of European autonomy as a rejection of the US is a strawman.

In the German Ministry of Defence, there seems to be concern that some elements of the German political opposition are a bit too enthusiastic about the idea of European autonomy.

The dispute over the United States’ influence is particularly annoying because the two countries are actually on the same page about what needs to be done: both Germany and France want to bolster European defence. Yes, the reasoning that leads them to this conclusion may be different: whereas France wants to be prepared for the day when the US is no longer able or willing to guarantee European security, Germany wants to strengthen the European pillar of NATO to convince the US to maintain its presence in Europe. But both partners come to the same conclusion: Europe must do more.

The countries are, therefore, not as far from each other as the current discussion makes it seem. Is this conflict based on a simple misunderstanding? That is possible, but seems unlikely given the regular exchanges between Berlin and Paris. Macron and AKK do not have to write op-eds – their staff can simply pick up the phone to clear up misunderstandings.
Is this a deliberate misconstruction, then? It may be that some particularly transatlantic-minded figures in Berlin suspect that Macron does indeed want to weaken NATO. Such suspicion is dangerous and should be addressed openly. It is also possible that AKK – especially with her opinion piece clearly directed at Washington – just wanted to show the Americans that Germany needs them and values their help.

However, AKK’s statements might also have been influenced by a different consideration. Namely, they make more sense if one takes into account German public opinion.

In the German Ministry of Defence, there seems to be concern that some elements of the German political opposition are a bit too enthusiastic about the idea of European autonomy – and not because they want to bolster European defence efforts. Rather, it is precisely the extreme (mis-)interpretation of European autonomy without the US that is attractive to them, as this is a vision that can be sold to parts of the German population. AKK warns that “anti-American sentiment, which has always existed in our country alongside feelings of gratitude and closeness toward our ally, is on the rise and has become a notable force.” And many Germans have always strongly rejected nuclear weapons. Thus, a European autonomy that leads to the withdrawal of American nuclear weapons from Germany may well find public support in Germany. Which means that Germany and Europe could end up with the worst of both worlds: a Europe without an American (nuclear) umbrella – and without the necessary European capabilities to replace it.

This would also explain why AKK emphasised in her speech that “the costs of strategic autonomy in the sense of complete detachment from the US would be disproportionately higher than the two percent of GDP to which we have committed ourselves in the transatlantic alliance.” France does not care much about the percentage of GPD that German defence spending amounts to – but that number certainly matters to the German taxpayer.

I admit that this might be a favourable analysis of the situation. But I cannot believe that there are such fundamental misunderstandings given regular Franco-German exchanges. Nor do I want to believe that we are seeing a wilful misunderstanding based on fundamental mistrust. We should cut down on these sham debates and focus on what both countries agree on: the need to build greater European capacities.

This article appeared first in German in Der Grand Continent.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of its individual authors.