President Trump is welcomed by French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris. (SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images) (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)
It has been a solemn week in Europe, where world leaders will mark the end of World War I on Sunday, two days after Germany commemorated the anniversary of a Nazi pogrom against Jews. With anti-Semitism and nationalism both on the rise once again, the message European leaders want to send this weekend is that the horrors of both World Wars will hopefully never repeat, to some extent thanks to a strong transatlantic alliance that has helped to avoid military conflicts in Western Europe for more than half a century now.
As he was on his way to Paris on Friday to join those commemorations, President Trump added a new story line. “President Macron of France has just suggested that Europe build its own military in order to protect itself from the U.S., China and Russia. Very insulting, but perhaps Europe should first pay its fair share of NATO, which the U.S. subsidizes greatly!” Trump wrote on Twitter.
It’s up for debate if the World War I commemorations are the appropriate moment to launch a discussion about finances. But apart from that, Trump’s interpretation of Macron’s remarks earlier this week is also factually misleading. What Macron said has been largely echoed by European Union leaders for months now, and in fact mimics the same demand Trump has long made: Europe needs to stop relying on the United States for its own defense.
“I believe in the project of a sovereign Europe. We won’t protect Europe if we don’t decide to have a true European army. In front of Russia which is at our borders and which can be threatening, I would like to start a security dialogue with Russia, which is a country I respect and which is European,” Macron told French radio station Europe 1 this week.
“We have to have a Europe that can defend itself alone — and without only relying on the United States — in a more sovereign manner,” he added.
Macron’s demands for a European army were met with skepticism across Europe this week, but not for the same reasons Trump objected to them. Even though some E.U. members already have multinational brigades or share equipment to save costs, European national constitutions fundamentally differ on the circumstances of military operations. Germany’s post-World War II constitution, for instance, has restricted military operations far more than is the case in contemporary Britain or France. Both latter countries participated in U.S. strikes against Syria’s Assad regime after a chemical weapons attack this year, whereas German forces would have been unable to intervene for constitutional reasons.
While demands for a European army are unlikely to move ahead anytime soon given those challenges, Macron’s broader point that Europe needs to become less dependent on the United States is not new. Last summer, German Chancellor Angela Merkel similarly said that Europe “really must take our fate into our own hands,” even though she was not explicitly discussing military issues.
Merkel said at the time that Europe’s move toward self-reliance should be carried out “of course in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbors wherever that works.” Germany, for instance, hosts some of the biggest American military bases outside of the United States and has no intention of forcing them out.
Like Merkel, Macron has repeatedly emphasized Europe’s willingness to cooperate with the United States under Trump, even as those ties are under mounting pressure.
Rushing to Trump’s defense on social media, some pointed to another Macron quote in the same interview this week. Europe has to protect itself “with respect to China, Russia and even the United States,” he said. But in that portion of his radio interview, Macron was actually referring to cybersecurity matters and fading multilateralism.
There has been some scrutiny of U.S. cybersecurity operations in Europe for years, especially after it was revealed in 2014 that the National Security Agency intercepted calls of Merkel and had access to sensitive communications. From a European perspective, not protecting itself from possible U.S. spying operations would appear rather naive, given those disclosures.
In any case, this has been a difficult week for Macron in terms of comments made to journalists. The ambiguities of his statements have dominated the headlines.
Speaking to reporters during one of the World War I commemoration, the French president launched a bitter national debate on Wednesday by declaring that Marshall Philippe Pétain, the leader of France’s infamous Vichy government during World War II, was a “great soldier” in World War I and that it was “legitimate” to honor marshalls like him. Following outrage from Jewish groups and public commentators, the Elysee Palace was forced on the defensive, insisting that there would be no formal commemoration of Pétain.
With his remarks on U.S.-European ties this week, however, Macron is far from being the only leader in Europe who has blamed the United States for some of the fading multilateralism in recent years. Trump has threatened the E.U. with tariffs, withdrawing from an Iran deal Europe says it will uphold and repeatedly raised questions over the future of NATO — pledges that have drawn the ire of capitals across the continent.
Macron’s comments reflected that divide, but there’s no reason the United States should be worried about a looming European invasion.
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