(CN) — With an attack on “nasty” France, President Donald Trump brought his “America First” foreign policy to a two-day NATO meeting on Tuesday. Europe is brewing up an antidote: A “Europe First” worldview known as “Euro-Gaullism.”
Gaullism refers to Charles de Gaulle, the French general who led the Resistance against Nazi Germany during World War II and then became France’s long-serving and beloved president. But it was de Gaulle’s staunch belief in maintaining an independent French foreign policy that’s drawing parallels with an emerging consensus among Europeans that the European Union must look after its own interests as the system of multilateralism breaks down: The World Trade Organization is stumbling, the United Nations is ignored, NATO is being called into question, and the United States has become an unpredictable ally.
“You can speak of Euro-Gaullism now,” said Alexander Clarkson, a European studies scholar at King’s College London, in a telephone interview with Courthouse News.
The depth of a growing rift between Europe and the United States will be measured this week as Trump and European leaders meet for a NATO summit in London to mark the alliance’s 70th anniversary.
In policy terms, Euro-Gaullism involves the EU developing a more independent stance — as de Gaulle sought to do after World War II and during the Cold War. De Gaulle pushed France into becoming the fourth nuclear-armed nation, withdrew France from NATO military operations, initiated an arms embargo against Israel and challenged U.S. hegemony.
Today’s Euro-Gaullism grows out of a necessity for Europe to find its place on a world stage engrossed in a titanic conflict between China and the United States, where both sides see Europe as a large, wealthy marketplace that can be exploited and leveraged to their advantage.
Debates over whether Europe can develop its own foreign policy and become a respected player at the table of the world’s power brokers are constant, and there is far from any consensus. There are those who believe Europe can, and should, become better at “power politics,” and others who see such attempts simply failing.
Nonetheless, there is a drive among policymakers and leaders to talk about how Europe needs to become sovereign: to be able to determine its own fate and become less reliant on the United States for military and economic protection, while capable of fending off advances by China and Russia seeking to gain footholds in Europe.
Only naturally, French are among the biggest proponents of the idea that Europe needs to become Gaullist — and it is French President Emmanuel Macron who is spearheading such ambitions.
In an extraordinary interview with the Economist magazine published in early November, Macron warned that Europe was standing “on the edge of a precipice” and that NATO was experiencing “brain death.”
“If we don’t wake up […] there’s a considerable risk that in the long run we [the European Union] will disappear geopolitically, or at least that we will no longer be in control of our destiny. I believe that very deeply,” Macron told the Economist.
His comments came in reaction to the Trump administration’s withdrawal of troops in Syria and Turkey’s invasion of Kurdish-held areas in Syria.
Trump on Tuesday called Macron’s “brain dead” comment “very insulting.” He called it a “very, very nasty statement essentially to 28 countries.”
“Nobody needs NATO more than France,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous statement for them to make.
Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan openly insulted Macron last week.
“First of all, have your own brain-death checked. These statements are suitable only to people like you who are in a state of brain death,” Erdogan said.
Macron said the U.S. was “turning its back” on a Europe that has become too focused on making money — bolstering its economy and single market — but that has lost its way politically. With the United States turning its attention toward China and the Pacific and away from the Middle East, Europe has become vulnerable, the French president said.
“All this has led to the exceptional fragility of Europe which, if it can’t think of itself as a global power, will disappear, because it will take a hard knock,” Macron said.
His answer to Europe’s vulnerability is to “regain military sovereignty” in cooperation with the other major power in Europe: Germany.
Germany and France are working on building a European-made tank and military aircraft and Germany’s leaders are talking increasingly about European sovereignty. The two powers are expected to begin discussions on what changes need to be made to strengthen the EU, even possibly changes to the bloc’s founding treaties.
“This is all driven by a fundamental loss of confidence in the United States,” Clarkson said. “Everyone has lost trust in NATO — everyone.”
Uncertainty over NATO has led Europeans to debate how to best defend the EU and its foundations, based around a single economic market within a borderless union and underpinned by the euro as the single currency.
“Coming up with a Plan B,” Clarkson said. “That is what the debate is about. What is our Plan B just in case the Americans disappear?”
He added: “It’s a debate between Germany and France about whether we can trust the Americans.”
Often, the back-and-forth between Germany and France seems more like a fight than a debate. Europe’s two major powers are often in disagreement and it is common to read that they are on the brink of a major meltdown, even risking to take down the EU project, which was built to foster peace and harmony between the two rivals after World War II.
The rifts between France and Germany get a lot of media attention, with political analysts watching for signs of how this power struggle will affect the future of the EU.
Macron is most candid in showing his frustrations. In recent months, he’s disagreed with Germany on a number of issues. In October, he upset Germany by holding up expansion of the EU into the Balkans when he blocked membership talks for North Macedonia and Albania. His interview with the Economist also drew rebukes from German leaders, including Chancellor Angela Merkel.
But many political analysts say too much attention is paid to the disagreements between France and Germany.
“Much of the current debate about Europe’s future is based on a widespread misconception: that the EU is powerless to shape global affairs because its member states are irreconcilably divided on countless issues and thus incapable of acting collectively,” wrote Zaki Laïdi, a political scientist at Sciences-Po University in Paris who has served as an adviser to the French government, in a recent essay in Project Syndicate. He did not return a message seeking comment.
Laïdi is a strong believer in the Euro-Gaullist approach and has written extensively on it.
“The French view of the political autonomy of Europe and of the necessity for the EU to play the game of global power politics is gaining traction with Germany and other member states,” Laïdi wrote in a recent column in the Financial Times.
He cited agreement between France and Germany in several key areas, including the idea that Europe needs to safeguard strategic companies from foreign takeover and move toward making the euro a stronger international currency.
“To be clear, the EU will never become a great power to rival the U.S. or China,” Laïdi wrote. “This old French dream will never come true because there is no European people and therefore no European superstate.”
Still, he argued that the EU can exert a lot of power by upholding high global standards on everything from food to digital privacy and protect the European economy from being taken over by China.
But are these European ambitions realistic?
For Europe to replace NATO would cost at least $347 billion and take 20 years to accomplish, according to Kori Schake, deputy director-general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a London-based think tank.
“But not only are Macron’s plans ambitious — they’re implausible,” Schake wrote recently in The Atlantic Monthly magazine.
“Like de Gaulle, Macron would unify Europe under France’s conception, with Germany footing the bill,” she wrote. “But the strategy runs aground, both for de Gaulle and for Macron, on two shoals.”
She said that France “hasn’t yet convinced its European partners that it is more reliable than the United States” on security and defense, and that France fails to take into consideration the strategic considerations of other European nations, for instance the attachment Poland and Baltic countries have to NATO in deterring Russia.
“He advocates a European army Germany doesn’t want, but that Germany, more than others, would have to fund,” Schake wrote.
Others also view with skepticism the notion that Euro-Gaullism will work.
“If the EU eventually were to move towards a more interests-based, pan-European Gaullism, it is far from clear that the road will be smooth,” the political analyst firm Eurointelligence said in April in response to Laïdi’s arguments. “That destiny may well be preceded by discontinuities. And it is not clear to us that Germany and France would necessarily be united throughout such a process.”
Still, Germany does appear to be moving in the direction of Macron. In November, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, a leading candidate to replace Merkel as chancellor, called for more defense spending. Commentators saw her speech as a massive policy shift inside Germany’s major party, the Christian Democrats. In recent days, Kramp-Karrenbauer also has floated the idea of bringing back national military service — a contentious issue in a Europe with memories of World War II.
Edoardo Bressanelli, a European politics lecturer at King’s College London and a Montalcini senior fellow in Pisa, said France and Germany are working more closely together now, largely out of necessity, as the United Kingdom withdraws from the EU and Italy remains bogged down in internal disputes and economic trouble.
“Structurally, these two countries were sort of forced to take on a role of leadership,” he said in a telephone interview. “France and Germany are really playing their game and deciding what the future will be.
“They are striking a balance,” he said. He said he expects the two to continue working together to give the EU direction and slowly make the bloc more integrated and interdependent.
He added: “There are some unknowns. Merkel is set to step down, so of course when you replace such a leader ruling a country for so long, you can’t be sure where Germany will be going.
“Given the way Europe works, I hardly expect major changes in the short run at least,” he said. “More continuity than discontinuity.”
Clarkson said Europe is being driven toward more integration and unity because of the breakdown in relations with the United States.
“If you can’t trust the U.S., then you must integrate, intensify interdependence, centralize power in Brussels,” Clarkson said.
He added: “Americans need to be very careful in drawing conclusions” about supposed European disunity. “Europe may become more powerful and it would not be so good for the U.S.”
(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union. Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.)