June 2, 2023 - 7:00am

The longer Russia’s invasion drags on, the more obvious it becomes that the international powers involved are pursuing interests other than the protection of Ukraine. In the United States, for example, the upcoming Republican primaries are set to turn an international crisis into part of the American culture wars. Every contender for the GOP nomination will have to be extremely careful not to appear supportive of yet another foreign war after the painful memories of Iraq and Afghanistan.

Similar forces are at play within the EU. It has been an open secret since French President Emmanuel Macron’s visit to China earlier this year that Paris wants to increase its global influence, ideally through becoming the dominant nation within the EU. This role, traditionally played by Germany as the economically strongest and most populous member state, has come under significant pressure, and Macron seems determined to take advantage of the vacuum. Top of the agenda, currently, is Ukraine’s Nato ambitions.

When in 2008 Washington wanted to grant Ukraine a “membership action plan” to join Nato, it was blocked by Germany — and France — very much to the frustration of other Central European nations like Poland. Now Paris is changing its tune, and just a day ago Macron announced that there needs to be a “path towards membership”. This sudden position is, really, no more than a political calculation. France cannot dethrone Germany without support from Eastern Europe, and many there have not forgotten that Macron called Nato “brain-dead” in 2019. Nor will they have forgotten his multiple phone calls with Vladimir Putin, which caused widespread suspicion about the French commitment to Kyiv’s independence and a unified European position. 

The French President was obviously aware of that, because he went to great lengths to emphasise that there should be no division into “old Europe” and “new Europe”, a clear attempt to gain points with fiercely pro-Nato members like Poland and Slovakia. Yet Macron could not resist also calling for an end of the arms race in the Ukraine war, as well as stressing that a lasting security structure in the East will have to engage Russia.

The Franco-German dispute goes further than division over Ukraine’s place in the international community. Despite being one of the world’s major producers of nuclear power, in recent history French presidents have usually signed up to Germany’s fixation on renewables and the phasing out of nuclear energy. Not anymore, though. In recent months Paris has put together an alliance of pro-nuclear nations that are directly challenging Berlin, pushing France as Europe’s main energy provider-in-waiting. 

Similarly, the European reaction to America’s Inflation Reduction Act reflects a new confidence among French policymakers, openly promoting their domestic economic approach of subsidies and state intervention as the future model for the entire EU. While France always perceived itself as more than a junior partner to Germany and continued an active foreign policy without much consultation in Africa and the Pacific, there was a quiet acceptance that on issues affecting Europe, the leadership role would be fulfilled by Berlin. 

Empowered by its deep pockets, Germany framed all the major policy decisions, from the Balkans to the Great Recession of 2010 and even European dealings with Russia. One should not imagine that Moscow tried to woo German politicians like ex-chancellor Gerhard Schroeder due to sentimentality. Rather, Putin knew very well that influencing German foreign policy meant influencing EU foreign policy. The Nord Stream pipelines, more than being a bilateral German-Russian agreement, were designed to create conditions that would make Germany reluctant to take the EU in an anti-Russian direction. 

It is unlikely that Ukraine will become a Nato or EU member in the foreseeable future, especially given Germany’s continued resistance, but this makes it even easier for France to take positions that could seize diplomatic capital among EU member states without having actual consequences. It also demonstrates that for Paris, the main competitor is not Moscow or Beijing, but Berlin.