This article originally appeared in Le Monde, on 16 March 2023.
Wars are moments of truth. Russia has revealed itself as not being the great power that many saw it to be. Ukraine has revealed its strength and courage.
But the war is also reshuffling the cards within the European Union (EU). On one hand, the French-German couple has not been able – or has not wanted – to take the lead in the European movement to deliver arms to Kyiv, and has sometimes sent an unclear message, torn between defending Ukraine and extending a hand to Russia. On the other hand, if there is a European driving force in this war, it clearly comes from the East.
Poland is evidently the leading EU country in terms of military support to Ukraine. As for Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, she regularly demonstrates her political leadership, such as when, at the European Council on February 9, she launched the idea of a joint ammunition purchase mechanism – an idea that is now being considered by all the Brussels institutions.
France, however, does not seem to have fully grasped the importance of this new geopolitical reality. Recent bilateral initiatives of the French government still show a preference for dialogue between Western Europeans, whether it be the Barcelona Treaty signed with Spain on January 19, the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty with Germany on January 22, or the Franco-British summit on March 10.
Twenty-year-old patternIs French diplomacy one war behind? One may wonder, seeing as the French leaders' prejudices toward Eastern Europe are so strong. In February 2003, President Jacques Chirac said, "They missed a good opportunity to shut up," regarding the support for the invasion of Iraq from Central and Eastern European countries that were then candidates for entry into the EU. In September 2022, President Emmanuel Macron echoed his predecessor in denouncing "war-mongers" who would put Europe at risk by extending the Ukrainian conflict.
Many French people have seemingly not gotten past the pattern of 20 years ago, in which Eastern Europeans are seen as "Atlanticists" or "neo-conservatives," from whom France, the "old country," should keep away from in the name of the defense of an independent Europe working for peace.
Today, it is not the United States but Russia that has invaded a state without legitimate reason, disregarding the United Nations Charter. And Eastern Europeans are no longer following Washington but are playing a leading role in a conflict they saw coming before anyone else.
France, which has always carried its ambition for a strong European defense at arm's length, is therefore at risk of missing out on its historic role. Because today, more than ever, it is unthinkable to develop European defense cooperation projects without closely associating the "eastern flank" countries.
European balance pointFrom a military point of view, Poland is building up the largest army in Europe; its orders for 366 American Abrams battle tanks and 1,000 South Korean K2 tanks are to be compared with France's 220 Leclerc tanks. And politically, the day Ukraine becomes a member of the EU, it will form with Poland, its closest partner in the Union, a bloc as populous as Germany. If we add up the massive Polish investments and the unique combat experience that the Ukrainians will have, it is clear that this is where the future of European defense will be played out.
France must now carry out a Copernican revolution. While the French-German couple remains a good driving force for Europe in the economic field, the future of European defense depends on the French-Polish couple.
That is not to say the French and Polish agree on everything; in fact, quite the contrary. But, in the same way, it is precisely the fact that Paris and Berlin are rarely aligned that has made the French-German duo effective: When the two countries manage to find a compromise, it is likely to correspond to a European point of balance, which could involve all the others.
In this way, a French-Polish compromise on the future of European defense would integrate both the Polish attachment to the transatlantic partnership and the French ambition for European strategic autonomy. It would also include Warsaw's credibility in the assessment of the Russian threat and that of Paris' in its attention to global security challenges in Africa and the Indo-Pacific. Most Europeans would find themselves in this compromise, starting with the Germans, who are often torn between these two visions.
Trust through joint projectsAs a first step, the French and Polish could reflect together on the establishment of a real EU defense budget, financing both the armament of Ukraine and of the current member states. The budget would respond to the priority of the eastern flank countries to constitute a military bulwark against Russia, but also to the French objective of creating a real European defense industrial base.
In a second step, Paris could take a step toward Warsaw by supporting Ukraine's rapid accession to the EU and NATO. For its part, Warsaw would take a step toward Paris by agreeing to the formalization of a European pillar within NATO, capable of a certain degree of autonomy in anticipation of the expected moment when the US will be forced to redirect its attention and efforts toward East Asia and the Chinese threat to Taiwan.
The dialogue will not be without obstacles. The French will be reluctant to get closer to a Poland that is regularly singled out for its violations of the rule of law; the Polish will sometimes find it difficult to overcome their view of France as being patronizing toward them. But, as with the Franco-German duo, it is through joint projects that trust will be built.
On February 3, 2020, President Macron, then visiting Warsaw, said, "I will be happy the day when the Polish say to themselves, 'The day I am attacked, I know that Europe will protect me,' because then European sentiment will be indestructible." This is the Europe of tomorrow that we still have to build.
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