As transatlantic symbols go, Emmanuel Macron’s upcoming visit to Washington DC will hopefully have a more positive aura than the recent phone call between Joe Biden and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz.
But diplomatic niceties can’t hide the gulf between the US establishment’s view of China as its chief competitor and Berlin’s interests in keeping a top trade relationship going. It’s one of several cracks seeping into a US-EU relationship that’s trying to put the Trump era behind it — with observers saying there’s a risk of collision.
Europe is helpfully no longer seen by the White House as a “foe” free riding on American security, profiting from bumper exports with an undervalued euro, and entrusting Russia with energy supplies. The two allies are on the same geopolitical page regarding the Ukraine invasion, with Germany now willing to spend on defense and less on Russian gas.
Yet at the same time, the US sees the EU as not doing enough: Not sending enough military or financial support to Kyiv and not being tough enough on countering China, as the Scholz-Biden call implies. The EU’s view of Beijing as partner, competitor and rival is too muddy for Washington. “On China, Europe is not there,” says former Obama aide Benjamin Rhodes.
Within Europe, resentment is building over widening economic disparity with the US. The euro area’s trade surplus is now a deficit as expensive energy imports impoverish European consumers while enriching American exporters. Durable goods purchases (cars, washing machines) in the US are up 24% since Dec. 2019, but have fallen 6.7% in France, according to strategist Nicolas Goetzmann. The US’s new protectionist electric-vehicle subsidies are rubbing salt in EU manufacturers’ wounds.
There’s an opening here for Macron, who is himself at loggerheads with Scholz on several issues, to urgently seize the opportunity for better transatlantic ties when he meets with Biden on Dec. 1. Significantly as well as symbolically, Macron will be the US president’s first state visitor.
One challenge is to demonstrate to the US why France, and Europe, should be cultivated as partners rather than dismissed as an irrelevance. Macron will have in mind the humiliating AUKUS episode, which saw an Australian deal to buy French submarines scrapped in favor of an alliance with the UK and US.
On top of pledging more support for Kyiv, France should seek more common ground with Biden regarding the Indo-Pacific and China. France is the only EU power with a presence in the region, says Camille Grand of the ECFR, with around 7,000 military personnel and 1.5 million citizens. Its strategy already seeks to complement the US’s, even as it pitches itself as a “balancing power.” Macron in September said that France wanted to counter the risk of regional “hegemony” through cooperation with India and Australia.
While not entirely aligned with the US, France can at least stake out a position closer to Washington than Berlin’s. China is France’s No. 5 trade partner, with about $87.3 billion in total trade, but is Germany’s No. 2 partner, with total trade of about $236 billion. When Macron met with Xi on the sidelines at the G20, it was more in tune with Biden’s stance than Scholz’s. Paris has “a card to play” as European allies jostle for influence, says Jeremie Gallon, of McLarty Associates.
In return, Macron should also push for more US support for the European economy, whose dire outlook hasn’t been sufficiently appreciated stateside. If Washington really wants to spread the gospel of “friend-shoring” among allies and NATO partners, it should find a compromise to de-escalate the electric-vehicle subsidy spat.
And in a throwback to Obama’s pressure on Angela Merkel during the eurozone crisis, the US might also see the benefit of endorsing a growth boost in Europe via more investment and joint borrowing, something Berlin is resisting. France’s energy-aid policies have underscored how euro-area inflation is driven by war and energy rather than the overheating seen in the US. More, not less, spending is needed.
One visit won’t be a panacea. Trust levels between France and the US have been clouded by ambiguity around Paris’s push for European or French-led defense. While Macron leads the EU’s only nuclear power and most credible military, he has also ruffled feathers by failing to take the lead on military assistance to Ukraine and past barbs about NATO’s purpose. He is “not the most popular among Eastern Europeans, nor even Southern Europeans,” write Ilke Toygur and Max Bergmann at think-tank CSIS.
But the symbolism and rhetoric of a Franco-American meeting in Washington DC — itself designed by a French architect — will be a good start. The Macron administration needs to alleviate Franco-German gridlock and the pain of the energy crisis. And, as former ambassador Pierre Vimont points out, the Biden administration needs allies like Europe to push its global agenda. It’s worth a shot.
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Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering digital currencies, the European Union and France. Previously, he was a reporter for Reuters and Forbes.
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