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The emptiness of Macron’s grand strategy 'Strategic autonomy' is little more than a slogan

Can he play the Great Game? (LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Can he play the Great Game? (LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)


September 8, 2023   4 mins

In the latest battle for strategic autonomy, Emmanuel Macron has notched up a small victory. Last month, under French pressure, American Fiona Scott Morton resigned from her post as chief economist of the EU’s Directorate-General for Competition. Starting from this month, Morton was to become head of the body that manages the functioning of the European market, despite many believing she is compromised by her previous roles advising companies in Silicon Valley.

Jean-Luc Mélenchon, leader of the far-Left, declared flatly that giving Morton the post amounted to annexation of Europe by the US. Marine Le Pen echoed him, indignant at an EU “that does not work on behalf of the interests of the European peoples”. Geoffroy Didier from the centre-right Les Républicains, expressed astonishment that, at a time when the EU should be curbing the power of US monopolies in Europe, such an important position was being granted to their lobbyist. The Macron government was equally united in its opposition.

Addressing l’affaire Morton, Macron once again insisted that Europe needs strategic autonomy, as well as “intellectual autonomy”, arguing that the appointment of an American with ties to Big Tech “does not necessarily represent the most coherent decision”. The largest groups in the European Parliament also rallied around France and sent a joint letter to the European Commission demanding the withdrawal of Morton’s nomination and stressing that strategic posts in the EU should be reserved for Europeans. Objections to the American candidate were also voiced from within the EU itself, where five commissioners — including Josep Borrell and Thierry Breton — wrote a letter to President von der Leyen.

How did Morton unite a continent so fractious and diverse? Symbolically, because she represents a challenge to Europe’s attempt to establish civilisational parity between itself and America — Macron’s fabled “autonomy”. But specifically because she was seen as a champion of the American tech oligopoly. As Matt Stoller, author of Goliath: The Hundred Year War Between Monopoly Power and Democracy, has noted, “competition or consumers are secondary in Morton’s thinking. This is why the Obama antitrust authorities facilitated the dominance of big business when she was in the administration there.” He points out that it was during the Obama administration that Big Tech consolidation occurred and “Scott Morton played a role facilitating [it]”. This is also the reason, according to Stoller, why she did not find a position in the Biden administration, as she was viewed as not being assertive enough towards Silicon Valley.

Yet the affair can also be seen as a settling of scores between France and Margrethe Vestager, the Danish Commissioner for Competition who defended Morton as simply the best person for the job. According to Politico, Morton’s resignation has severely eroded Vestager’s political capital. And Paris already harboured resentment towards Vestager for opposing a proposed merger between France’s rolling stock giant Alstom and Germany’s Siemens Mobility in 2019. Following her decision, Minister of Economy Bruno Le Maire had expressed outrage that the European Commission would deliberately obstruct the emergence of “European champions”. Instead of defending Europe, he added, the Commission “serves the interest of China”.

Serious concerns remain that the next candidate for chief economist, an Austrian with American citizenship, Florian Ederer, will clash with Paris as well. He has admitted his own scepticism about loosening the rules around industrial policy and said “the guiding principle should be protecting competition and not protecting competitors”, even if it disadvantages European companies. This is the new division between Paris and Brussels: a division between the market-brain that still predominates at levels of the EU and the strategic realpolitik emanating from the Palais de l’Élysée.

For Macron, meanwhile, the fact that he was able to mobilise opposition against the American candidate is the first real success of his vision of Europe. But in doing so, he has extended the fear of loss of sovereignty to the rest of Europe’s leaders — who already live surrounded by headlines auguring continental decline. According to the IMF, the eurozone economy grew about 6% in the last 15 years, compared with 82% in the US. And crucially, not only is the Old Continent becoming poorer relative to the New, but the essential basis of sovereignty and strength in the 21st century, technology, is its Achilles’ heel: among the 20 largest technology companies, only two hail from Europe.

Does the EU have the means and will to resolve this? Or is its margin for manoeuvre limited only to symbolic victories, such as the rejection of Morton? The big, ambitious projects that were supposed to form the core of the EU’s technological sovereignty have largely failed. Like its unsuccessful Eurochip project and delayed and overpriced Project Galileo scheme, the GAIA-X project, supposed to provide Europe with its own online cloud, also seems doomed to failure.

The story will likely be the same with the upcoming AI Act, which is being suffocated by Brussels’ bureaucracy. The EU sees itself as a regulatory superpower and wants to shape the future of AI not by fostering innovation, but by imposing its regulatory standards on the entire world. There are many indications suggesting that, unlike in the area of internet privacy, the so-called “Brussels effect”, projecting European standards across the world, will not prevail. Instead, rigid regulations are hurting European companies, which are losing the chance to compete with their competitors from the US, China or even the UK. Last year, in one report, more than three-quarters of British start-up companies claimed that, if they were subject to the restrictions, the impact would either be negative or prevent them from doing business altogether.

So, while Macron can claim a symbolic victory over Morton’s resignation, it hides a deeper problem for the proponents of strategic autonomy, namely the lack of vision on how to accomplish it. Devoid of one, it risks remaining a mere slogan, little more than a manifestation of sterile anti-Americanism. In the early Eighties, Georges Suffert addressed the French in his book Les Nouveaux Cowboys, which stemmed from his observations of Silicon Valley. “I am going to tell you why you don’t like Americans: they play, they putter about assembling a world, and before long you will no longer know how to play in it.” The big question for Macron’s grand strategy after l’affaire Morton is: can Europe rule, let alone play in, this new world?


Krzysztof Tyszka-Drozdowski is a writer from Poland.

ktdrozdowski

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Mike Downing
Mike Downing
7 months ago

The EU is first and foremost a ballooning, unelected bureaucracy and bureaucrats luuurve regulations. Unfortunately, despite Brexit we have not had the bonfire of the regs we were promised and Starmer’s idea is tighter alignment which makes no sense at all; we should leave them to tie themselves in knots and make setting up a business far easier and more attractive here. But has anybody got the ‘couilles’ to do it ? Ho hum.

Katharine Eyre
Katharine Eyre
7 months ago

“So, while Macron can claim a symbolic victory over Morton’s resignation, it hides a deeper problem for the proponents of strategic autonomy, namely the lack of vision on how to accomplish it. Devoid of one, it risks remaining a mere slogan, little more than a manifestation of sterile anti-Americanism”.
Exactly! In the absence of a coherent plan for strategic autonomy, the unceremonious rejection of Scott-Morton was just another instance of petty politics overriding common sense. Maybe her background wasn’t perfect, but she was an excellent candidate, supported by dozens of top economists. And, since Europe is constantly lagging behind America – criticising it and trying to act the boss while really wishing it could be more like them – I thought having an American in such a high position would have been a massive win. It would also helped to rebut arguments that the EU is too protectionist, too closed-off, too provincial etc.
In the end, it made Macron and his buddies look entirely pathetic and vengeful while cementing Europe’s position as a mere onlooker in the main theatre of action between the US and China.

Last edited 7 months ago by Katharine Eyre
John Riordan
JR
John Riordan
7 months ago

I’m gratified to learn that the UK appears to have some sort of regulatory freedom advantage over the EU in AI tech, but frankly we’ve been free of the EU for three years and I’m still clicking that stupid cookie warning notice on every website I visit and the City, struggling as it is to maintain world class status as a financial centre, is still subject to the EU’s ludicrously silly regulatory orbit. Yes I know these things take time, but they needn’t take THAT much time.

And it’s not as though the UK isn’t capable all on its own in creating short-sighted and destructive regulations, as the Online Harms bill demonstrates.

I maintain that the quickest way to fix our problems is simply to fire half our bureaucrats. All they do these days is get in each other’s way at best, but more usually they just get in the way of the rest of us trying to do something useful.

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
7 months ago

“While Macron can claim a symbolic victory over Morton’s resignation, it hides a deeper problem for the proponents of strategic autonomy, namely the lack of vision on how to accomplish it.”

It’s worse than how to accomplish it. It is what is meant by “it”? What does “it” look like? America’s tech revolution hails from tech savvy entrepreneur start-ups in Silicon Valley. The EU’s “vision” is driven by past their sell by date Eurocrats. There’s no contest. The genius of Europe used to be its diversity. It provoked competition. The Europe of the EU is stagnation by Directive-mandated uniformity.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
7 months ago

The EU still has the tool of trade war which I believe it has revived recently against Biden’s green corporatism and its tilt towards China’s manufacturing sector.
This reads like additional propaganda in the revived project for a New American Century. If there are less neocon cheerleaders in Slovakia now apparently, then a lot can be found in Poland and the vicinity.

Caradog Wiliams
CW
Caradog Wiliams
7 months ago

Everything I read tells me how unpopular Macron has become. But people still voted for him. If Le Pen is the only alternative, it is not surprising that Macron was re-elected. I supose that people no longer bother to vote.

Margaret TC
MT
Margaret TC
7 months ago

‘82%’ growth in the US has to be an error, surely? I know they’re making a fortune out of the war in Ukrine but still….

Jim Haggerty
Jim Haggerty
7 months ago
Reply to  Margaret TC

USA GDP 2008 15 Trillion…2022 23 Trillion…
Look no further than Apple, Google, Microsoft and Nvidia type companies for that

Howard Gleave
Howard Gleave
7 months ago
Reply to  Margaret TC

The Americans aren’t making a fortune out of the war in Ukraine. They’ve been generous but it’s basically 31 tanks, about the same number of Himars, no ATACMS, no fast jets, no helicopters, no cruise missiles, no anti shipping missiles, half a Patriot battery but lots of 155mm ammo, Humvees and basic vehicles. Hardly a shot in the arm to the military industrial complex.

Jane H
Jane H
7 months ago
Reply to  Howard Gleave

The fortune lies in the rebuilding of Ukraine.

Dumetrius
Dumetrius
7 months ago

I travelled on an Alstom train in Eastern Europe this week.

Sure, it’s a bit puzzling when the train doors close when they pull in at a station, but the wind during the rest of the trip is nice in the hot weather.

Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
7 months ago

So a polish “writer from Poland” writes an amicus brief ; expliaing why any autonomous policy or even basic defense of European companies is bad for Europe
It seems poles replaced the brits as America’s puppet bitches in Brussels
As for Macron, he’s a member of the anywhere techno-manegrial elite a smuch as the Brussel loonies. The slight difference is that Macron wants a (reasonnably) functional oligarchy, as opposed to Brussels bureaucratic nightmare.

Andrew F
AF
Andrew F
7 months ago

Reality is Europe created little innovative in the last 50 years.
All the big European businesses in chemicals, pharma, cars were established long time ago.
People like you complain about USA dominance using USA technology.
Idea that deadbeats of Brussel can outcompete USA is just laughable.
As to Poles replacing blah, blah.
Well they don’t need lessons from Vichy collaborators whose country was saved twice in the last 100 years by USA.