28 July 2017

How Brexit, Trump and Macron Made France Relevant Again

I have to admit that I am in awe of Emmanuel Macron.

Don't get me wrong, I am not a fan. He is essentially a conservative politician and I am an old pinko who never liked leftwing politics.

Nor do I look at him as someone who could save the world and stop the decline of the American Empire.

It's something else, it's his ability to grasp a context and move quickly to seize the day.

#carpe diem.

Now, he is a lucky man. There is no doubt there.

Think of his meteoric rise from a middling investment banker in London to Minister of Economy and then to President of the French Republic in the span of five years.

This is a guy who has never held an elected office in his life.

Or his unbelievable feat of winning the legislative elections by a landslide with a party that was formed a month earlier, fielding a rag tag group of unknown candidates.

Each of these achievements would be proof of extraordinary luck, and collectively they are the equivalent of winning the Powerball or El Gourdo or Euromillions three weeks in a row.

But the reason I am in awe of him is the way he capitalized on the specific context that was created by Brexit and the election of Donald Trump and the way he positioned himself -in the span of few short weeks- as a world leader and France as a country to be reckoned with.

And that was not an easy achievement given the dismal setting he inherited.

Let me explain my thinking.

Europe and France Before Brexit

A year ago the European Union was a doomed project.

Germany was slowly destroying its weaker economies, the so called PIIGS countries, and was emerging as the dominant leader of the EU.

It was clear that there was an affluent club led by Germany and comprising the Netherlands and most of the Nordic countries and a second club of declining members who would soon be unable to implement the same policies as the first group and keep up with them.

On the Eastern front, the recent EU members made a radical shift to the right and formed a mini union (the Visegrad group) to resist and ignore policy directives from Brussels. They became a major disruption for Europe.

Then there were talks about resurrecting the "intermarium" as "a bulwark not only against Putinist “neo-Bolshevism” encroaching from Moscow, but also against the neoliberal, multicultural, secular and feminist “neo-Bolshevism” emanating from Brussels."

Or as Jon Stewart would have put it, fascism with a slavic accent.

Merkel's demographically motivated but incorrectly explained decision to take in one million refugees did not sit well with the rest of Europe.

France with its own five million Muslims was the target of several bloody terror attacks making French even more opposed to the idea of welcoming more Arabs from the Middle East.

European public were openly hostile to the avowedly only remedy available for EU's problems, i.e. more integration. In fact, the general mood in most member countries was to take back some of the components of their sovereignty.

In short, Europe was already an economically fragmented and politically divided union and, at that juncture, the infamous "Europe a la carte" or "Two-tier union" seemed inevitable.

As for France, the historically important Franco-German alliance was no longer relevant as the wheezing French economy barely kept the country out of the PIIGS club. With its chronic unemployment and underperforming economy, France seemed lost.

The UK, as the second largest economy in the union, was the only counterbalance to the German behemoth, especially since it kept its own currency and the special ties to the sole remaining superpower.

And then Brexit happened.

Why Brexit Was Important?

Essentially, it made the unthinkable possible.

While no one was really enamored with the EU, it seemed impossible to dismantle it and go back to the status quo ante. The UK, in one fell swoop, showed that it was quite possible to do it.

Soon, right wing parties everywhere began to talk about Nexit, Frexit and Italeave.

Moreover, the British exit made the future of EU an imminent issue to be dealt with, sooner rather than later.

What to do with the Euro? Should there be more financial and economic integration? Or should there be a Europe a la carte? What about the Visegrad Group? How to deal with terrorism? What about the refugees?

And of course, as the one of the two European countries to possess nuclear bombs and a decent army, the British departure shone a bright line on the question of European defense.

Putin began a massive military modernization program around 2008 -largely on Nato's prodding- which turned the old and clunky Red Army into an effective fighting machine as shown in the Crimea, Ukraine and Syria deployments.

European Nato members were spending less and less on defense and for the most part ignoring the rising Russian military power. The general feeling was that a membership to Nato was more than enough to protect them.

Take Bundeswehr, the German army.
Underfunding has been at times highly embarrassing, such as the revelation that during a Nato exercise in 2014 Bundeswehr tank commanders covered up their lack of machine guns by using broomsticks painted black.
More importantly, in military terms, Bundeswehr is a joke.
The Bundeswehr, born in the mid 1950s, was a deliberately modest force, meant only to defend West German territory, not fight abroad. Its recruits were taught to think of themselves as "citizens in uniform". 
Indeed the uniform itself, says historian James Sheehan, "really does resemble [that of] bus drivers rather than the old guards' regiments".
And then Trump happened.

Trump and Nato

Image result for trump corleoneWhile running for president, Trump stated that he was not going to take Article 5 seriously unless the member under attack had been spending 2 percent of its GDP on defense.

I called it the Don Corleone doctrine of collective protection.

He also thought that Nato was no longer relevant: he actually said that it was obsolete.

And then he became POTUS and his Putin connection was revealed.

About the same time, Nato's second largest (and battle hardened) army was dismantled by its own government. In fact, Nato Supreme Allied Commander Europe of Nato Curtis Scaparotti raised the alarm about the alliance much weakened capabilities.

Suddenly, there were calls for expanding the burgeoning European Defense Agency into a European Nato.
"NATO can no longer be used as a convenient alibi to argue against greater European efforts," Juncker said. He said the United States is "no longer interested in guaranteeing Europe's security in our place."
Even the traditionally pacifist Germany was in on it.

The first-tier EU members seriously debated a European nuclear deterrent.

Within that context, let's take a look at the French military and France's own military industrial complex.

Here is what a defense analyst says about them.
The French are the only ones in Europe who are almost self-sufficient in producing high quality military vehicles, firearms, ships and aircraft and weapons. Their products have been exported worldwide and have been the star in several major wars.
And he goes on to explain why.
Only 2 countries in the world have developed a self-propelled, self-contained SAM system capable of firing radar guided missiles, France and Russia. [...]

France is the third country in the world after the US and Russia, to develop and deploy long range Land Attack Cruise Missiles on its warships. The Scalp missile is a 1000+ km range missile launched from the A70 VLS and has a 450 kg warhead.
Their Landing Helicopter Dock (LHD) Mistral ships and their nuclear powered aircraft carriers (the only ones in the world outside the US Navy) are unique in Europe.

In that sense French army is almost self- sufficient, a distinction no other army in the world, besides the US and Russia, can claim.

They are also the third largest nuclear deterrent behind US and Russia.

In 2008 the French military issued a White Paper about the looming terrorist threat and the need to adapt armed forces accordingly. France has now 36,000 troops deployed in foreign territories.

All of these capabilities and attributes existed before Macron. What he did with them is the remarkable bit.

He approached Merkel as an equal and he coolly pushed the defense angle. No more French economy excuses that Hollande had to put forward to explain France's chronic deficit.

He said, we are the supreme military power in Europe and if Nato and Trump won't defend Europe, we are the only credible force you have. Especially with the Brits gone.

So within a month, he got Merkel to agree to develop a European fighter jet in collaboration with France, with French military industrial complex being the main beneficiary as they have the know-how.

Image result for macron and trump bastille day paradeThen he turned around and positioned himself as the natural European interlocutor for Donald Trump, in the absence of Britain.

He invited the Donald, the rich kid from Queens with a chip on his shoulder bigger than Texas, to Bastille Day celebrations, fully aware that the narcissistic President-child might perceive the military parade and procession as something specifically arranged just for him.

He did it at a time when Theresa May could not get Trump to agree to any state visit in 2017.

It is a simple move that turned him into the main European partner of the Orange Man.

And look at the handshake the day before with the Donald shy as a pre-teen girl in a Justin Bieber concert and Macron not letting his hand go in Trump's signature alpha-male move.

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) and U.S. President Donald Trumps shake hands as they attend a joint news conference at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France (REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes)

The clincher in al this is that with Brexit and the UK gone and Merkel and Trump in a pointless and pointed feud, Macron is now the point man for all EU-US and EU-Nato relations.

All I can say is "wow."

Or as they say in Canada, with characteristic understatement, "not too shabby."

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