W ith German chancellor Angela Merkel yielding her grip on the reins of European leadership, French president Emmanuel Macron knows his moment has come and aims to take advantage of it. Two recent interventions by the French president illustrate his desire to further the European project of “more Union.” The one that has received much positive notice was the speech he gave in Paris on the centenary of Armistice Day, in which he portrayed nationalism as “a betrayal” of patriotism. The nationalist says “our interests first and who cares about the rest!” And there goes the European neighborhood, because to the extent that we can love our own country, it must be on the basis of its “moral values.” But those are universal, shared, a self-fulfilling project of values, according to Macron.
Nothing distinctive to see here, folks, in the particular culture and politics of France, or those of other nations. Macron is thus able to say that the French should have “eternal loyalty to our dead!” and, then without pause, continue with “Let’s again take the United Nations’ oath to place peace higher than anything, because we know its price, we know its weight, we know its demands!”
A few days before his November 11 speech, however, Macron, while visiting the grounds of the horrific Verdun battle (French casualties totaled over 162,000), called upon the European Union to create its own army. Macron wants to put teeth in the EU’s quest for perpetual peace. The “moral values” that exalt peace above every consideration would seem unable to entertain the thought that there might be a bad peace or a good war. What wars would an EU army fight, and what peace would it accept? The measure of that peace and that war is made by the particular constitutional and political shape of your country, of what you are as a people. Is there an EU people, shaped by its laws and constitution, such that its citizens would know who they are and what they are fighting for in a potential conflict?
We should consider what bound the French soldiers at Verdun to fight for their country as a way to consider just how practical Macron’s new model transnational army really is. According to him, French soldiers in World War I fought for “universal values,” for “the exact opposite of the egotism of a people who look only after interests.”
France was attacked by Germany, however, not because France was a beacon of moral truth, but for reasons of cold-blooded strategy. France had a security commitment to Russia, a country Germany wanted to vanquish because of its pact with the Austro-Hungarian Empire and Germany’s own territorial ambitions. Germany had to knock France out, which it thought it could do quickly, then transfer its forces east and avoid a prolonged war with Tsar Nicolas II’s Russia by crushing his forces. Germany’s plan failed, though, as French forces were able to stall the German advance into France, thus bringing on the four-year trench-war stalemate and its dreadful carnage.
France’s situation here is an example of how the democratic nation-state is the seat of strength. The reason is straightforward. National armies of a democracy fight in defense of its law, its border, its culture and history, all of which create the bonds of memory and citizenship. They fight and stay together because the “who” and the “what” of a political people has been settled by their prepossessions: language, customs, public spirit, and common experiences of suffering. Roger Scruton says this historical formation becomes the first person plural of the membership of a people. Citizens see themselves in this social and political membership. The French nation in World War I was able to muster courage and resilience on this foundation of a shared membership of a national people.
If Macron will not have nationalism, will he find the loyalty that builds and sustains armed forces, in good times and bad? He too quickly assumes that he can whip up a transnational defense force, you know, national-sovereignty style. Who does he think will fill the ranks of Team EU? Pensioners in Germany? Unemployed North Africans in the banlieues of Paris?
Will increased contributions from member states to the EU fund such a force? What about cuts in EU subsidies to its member states? The sacrifices necessary to make Macron’s transnational army a reality seem difficult to achieve. There is no “We” or first-person plural for such a force to really defend, to inspire, to recruit, or, quite frankly, to be accountable to. The EU has not even remotely succeeded in transplanting loyalty to its laws and institutions from the loyalties that local citizenries still accord their states. Political forms of attachment must be proper to the lives of those such forms would govern, a fact that also holds true with regard to a military controlled by those political forms.
The French president tries to answer the basic objections that benighted conservatives pose to his project. To the suggestion that the EU stands for merely an apolitical governance not premised on citizenship or democratic accountability, Macron roots EU identity in both the ideals of humanitarianism and, it would seem, the defeat of reactionary forces (read, nationhood and religion, both of which he believes synonymous with intolerance). Does he not provide a series of battles for such an army to fight? “Together, we can keep at bay these threats — global warming, poverty, hunger, disease, inequality and ignorance. We’ve begun this battle and can win it: Let’s continue with it, because victory is possible!” To be sure, he speaks to world leaders here, but such goals are certainly EU goals. The “battle” must be joined because of a new “fascination with self-absorption, violence and dominance,” which, if they come to pass, “future generations would rightly make us historically responsible for.”
Macron justified his call to build an EU force by claiming a U.S. withdrawal from Europe and invoking the possibility of Russian aggression against EU members. Europe must be able to defend itself alone, he said, adding that the United States could pose a threat to the EU’s cybersecurity. The army that occupies the right side of history cannot tolerate forces that would seek, however ineffectually, to interrupt its onward march. What Macron fears will inhibit “the dawn of a new era, a civilization taking man’s ambitions and faculties to the highest level,” can be concretized easily enough. His soaring aims imply an indictment of certain wayward peoples and groups. In addition to Russia and the United States, would the so-called Visegrad group of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia in the right circumstances be such an enemy?
Assuming that such an army is raised, what makes its existence worth additional consideration is that the political path of the EU is incapable of being the subject of proper debate. Since the European Treaty can be changed only by a majority vote of its signatories, there is no real way for members to challenge its inner workings. There is only one path: towards “more Europe.” And that leads to the ongoing diminishment of the nation and those would defend it. But this deterministic path is now threatened by the increasing number of peoples in Europe who view the surrender of their sovereignty as an absolute loss. The Union cannot be reformed along their lines. Either it snaps or it defends its present course. On this point, Macron is providing leadership. But is anyone really following him? And if not, will they be made to?