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French President Emmanuel Macron has rubbed allies the wrong way recently with unpopular stances on Nato (brain-dead), enlarging the European Union (like trying to butter an expanding piece of toast), and Brexit (every delay needs a reason). His defenders in Brussels say he’s on a mission to wake up the EU — or in French, “reveiller les esprits” — but the backlash has been widespread, with Macron’s Nato view in particular described as “bewildering” by Germany and “dangerous” by Poland.

For all the outrage, though, it’s surely a good thing that the EU is being pushed to consider real, existential questions about its future as a shrinking bloc in the midst of a geopolitical conflict between the US and China. What’s unhelpful is the tone.

Berlin is the intended audience when it comes to Macron’s outbursts. He wants to prod Germany into a more assertive post-Brexit phase.

- Lionel Laurent

Take a step back and consider the challenges facing the EU. The UK’s departure means waving goodbye to 14 per cent of the bloc’s GDP, 40 per cent of its military power, and $104 billion (94 billion euros) of budgetary resources. It also means a hit to its aspiration of delivering ever closer union among Europeans — who elsewhere have expressed discontent with the status quo.

Across the Atlantic, US President Donald Trump is an avowedly anti-EU president who has cheered Brexit, wielded trade tariffs like a weapon and questioned whether he would send American troops to defend Nato members. The parallel rise of a more assertive China, deploying money, technology and military might, has also unsettled and divided the EU.

Internal division

The nightmare for France is that instead of responding to these political, economic and security challenges with European solutions, the EU drifts into what Macron has called “supermarket Europe”: a vast commercial expanse, growing further and further east, in which members do brisk trade with one another but stay divided politically and let others do the hard work of defending their prosperity. That’s why Macron stamps his feet the longer Brexit drags on — the UK has consistently blocked the closer EU integration he views as necessary. It’s why he’s keen to identify Trump-sized risks to the Atlantic alliance in order to jolt his allies into action. It’s also why he’s suffering from enlargement fatigue: He fears adding more member states without a corresponding big boost to the EU’s budget will increase internal division and external dependence on Nato.

It’s wrong to assume this is just a self-interested push by Paris to control the EU. Other states share some of these concerns: Germany has taken some steps in Macron’s direction, with Chancellor Angela Merkel endorsing his future vision of a European army and Defence Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer reiterating the call for closer security cooperation earlier this month. EU governments recently signed up to a defence pact (Pesco) for developing common technology and a 13 billion-euro European Defence Fund, which the US dislikes. Germany has also supported Macron’s vision of a multi-speed Europe, where an avant-garde core goes ahead with closer ties while other countries hang back. It’s piecemeal stuff, but it matters.

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Clearly, though, Berlin is the intended audience when it comes to Macron’s outbursts. He wants to prod Germany into a more assertive post-Brexit phase. Germany and other “frugal” allies seem to want to pinch EU pennies while expanding the bloc; Germany’s reassuring words on defence also don’t always line up with its hesitation to wield power and direct strategy, according to Carnegie Europe’s Judy Dempsey. Macron’s tone is pushy, yes, and more than a little irresponsible. Maybe he senses a window of opportunity: Angela Merkel is a lame duck, France is on surer economic footing, and the Brits are leaving. This isn’t about controlling the EU or replacing Nato. Paris is far from ready to start extending its own nuclear umbrella across the continent, and ideas like a European Security Council point to a strengthening of the European pillar within Nato, according to Frederic Mauro, an associate research fellow at the IRIS Institute.

Macron also wants the UK on board in defence even if it’s no longer in the EU. This is a crossroads for the EU. It has done a good job in defending its interests as a soft-power bloc. But as Zaki Laidi, a Sciences Po professor of international relations, argues, it needs to get ready for an era of “sharp power,” in which traditional tools like trade or technology are weaponised by the likes of the US and China. Deciding how and where to wield hard power is a vital question for the EU. If Macron’s views are left to wither on the vine with no alternative, it won’t just be his fault.

— Lionel Laurent is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Brussels.