PARIS – Emmanuel Macron headed to Berlin Monday to meet Chancellor Angela Merkel, with the newly inaugurated French president seeking to promote closer defense ties between France and Germany in a bid to build a stronger European military.
A much noticed sign of Macron's commitment to the French services came in Sunday's inauguration ceremony, when the commander in chief rode in an Acmat command car rather than a presidential vehicle up the Champs Elysées to pay homage to the unknown soldier at the Arc de Triomphe.
Before stronger defense cooperation can occur, "there has to be European policy, a top down approach," said Vincent Desportes, former head of the French War College and professor of Science Po university. A close link between Macron and Merkel could lead to a higher level of defense cooperation between the two major European powers.
One of Macron's campaign pledges included the creation of a permanent European headquarters to plan and oversee operations of European forces, with the HQ linked to national and NATO headquarters.
"That is extremely important," Desportes said. "If a European HQ were running, we could move ahead."
Previous French leaders have sought such a European HQ but Britain consistently resisted, as London saw that as merely duplicating NATO. But with the U.K. leaving the European Union in the Brexit plan, that resistance will no longer block a move to a European military center.
Another of Macron's campaign aims was to set up a European security council, comprising officers, diplomats and intelligence officials to advise European leaders. He has also committed to increasing defense spending to hit 2 percent of gross domestic product by 2025, excluding pensions and overseas deployments. That amounts to some €50 billion (US $55 billon) a year compared to the present €32 billion, he said in March during the election campaign.
That 2025 commitment is seen favorably by the service chiefs as the pledge signals big spending increases next year and 2019, and hitting 2 percent by 2022, including pensions, Desportes said. The 2025 date falls beyond the five-year presidential term, but there are strong hopes among the service chiefs Macron will reverse the effective cuts under the previous administration, he added.
Much of Macron's campaign plan was prepared by officials close to the defense minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, but the new commander in chief is "an intelligent man" who will grasp quickly the situation, he said.
Another of Macron’s aims is to set up a European defense fund to invest in joint programs such as a European drone. Such a European joint effort is key in view of "American and Chinese giants and the rising cost of arms programs," he said in his campaign note.
However, gaining a larger defense role for the European Union raises the problem of relations between Paris and the smaller states, said a report from Friends of Europe, a Brussels-based think tank.
"One of France’s handicaps in pursuing foreign policy and defense cooperation within the E.U. is the enduring disdain for much of its political and domestic establishment for the smaller member states, referred to as ‘les petits pays’ (the little countries)," said the report, titled Crunch Time: France and the Future of European Defense.
Illustrative of that was the then president Jacques Chirac telling off central and east European countries which signed a joint letter supporting the U.S. in its war against Iraq in 2003, treating them as if they were "naughty children," the report said. They had "missed a good opportunity to shut up," Chirac said.
Against that political backdrop, Macron will speak to Merkel and make a pitch for closer Franco-German cooperation and a stronger European defense.