Georgina Wright is a Senior Fellow and Director of Institut Montaigne’s Europe Program. She has worked at both the European Commission and NATO. We met in the heart of the French capital to talk about EU foreign policy in the aftermath of Brexit, the indiscrete charm of Putin-friendly Marine Le Pen, French President Macron and how Ukraine has brought together the EU like never before. With EU member states set to discuss the granting of EU candidate status to Ukraine in just a few days, and Macron’s coalition receiving a razor thin majority in the first round of France’s recent parliamentary elections, Wright pours fresh light on France’s role in the EU and Ukraine’s relations with both.

Dubenko: Ms Wright, thank you for meeting me here today at the Institut Montaigne. My first question is: what does it feel like for a Brit like yourself to be living in France post-Brexit?

Advertisement

Wright: That’s a very good question. I grew up abroad and have always been interested in European affairs, so I’ve been looking at Brexit for a very long time. At some point, I want to refocus on the EU, and what place to be better doing that than Paris? Not only does it hold the presidency in the Council of the European Union [until July 2022], but it is also a key player in the EU.

Dubenko: You’ve written quite a few papers on Brexit. What do you make of it?

Wright: The whole of the U.K. has more or less accepted the outcome. At the end of the day, it was a democratic vote, and the majority, even if a slim one, voted to leave. Now, I’m exploring what the U.K. is doing next – and what it does differently.  After five years of examining Brexit’s nitty-gritty, it feels like relief. Still, a lot needs to be done to bring the U.K. and the EU closer together.

Donors, Send Donations to Ukrainian People Rather Than to Amnesty International
Other Topics of Interest

Donors, Send Donations to Ukrainian People Rather Than to Amnesty International

According to the author Amnesty International is no longer the human rights organization it once was purported to be.

Dubenko: Even though they broke up?

Wright: Exactly, you need a period of mourning. Once they’re done fixing themselves, they will need to find some way of working together and scenarios of mutual interest. We’ve seen it with the war in Ukraine, with the British Secretary of State for Defence Ben Wallace traveling to Brussels together with United States Secretary of State Anthony Blinken to participate in the EU Foreign Ministers meeting. In short, the UK is adjusting to a new reality outside of the EU and will need to deepen cooperation with Brussels.

Advertisement

Dubenko: There are plenty of indications that U.K. PM Boris Johnson is trying to re-establish British leadership worldwide. The war in Ukraine is a sad yet serious opportunity for him to do so. He is sending weapons, paid two visits to Kyiv before and after the war began, and is talking about creating an alliance of so-called trustworthy countries to confront Russia. Is Johnson’s approach an annoyance to Paris as it tries to take the reins in Europe?

Wright: I’d say that it’s reassuring to see the U.K. committed to European security. Several years ago, there was a worry that London would only be looking beyond Europe, in line with the Global Britain mantra. Yet it turned out that it is fairly committed to Euro-Atlantic security, and there’s also a recognition in France that the U.K. has responded well to the war. It was the first European country to send legal lethal weapons to Ukraine. It also had a very clear start on Russia that predates the aggression, which I think helped the U.K. government produce a quick response. The communication around what the U.K. is doing in Ukraine is very good as well, with London clearly telling the British public what it will – and will not do. I think all these things were viewed positively. Perhaps, with a certain bit of envy.

Advertisement

Dubenko: French President Emmanuel Macron has been re-elected, once again beating Marine le Pen, who is often described as Kremlin-friendly. Despite her close ties, she still manages to appeal to a substantial chunk of French voters. What’s her magic?

Wright: We’re not hearing much of her right now, but I believe that she’s popular because she speaks to the worries of many. For instance, she was talking about the cost-of-living crisis before it was mainstream in the news. She often amplifies fears of immigration and identity, being a sort of absolute patriot. You know, the way she says the word “France,” emphasizing its grandeur, which appeals to a lot of people, who also appreciate that she’s unafraid of bringing up politically tricky subjects, even though she has often been challenged on her solutions, which are either impossible to implement or completely unrealistic.Overall, she ran a very good campaign, traveling all across France. The big question is whether she will run again in five years – or will someone from her party replace her.

Advertisement

Dubenko:  And they’re not concerned about her ties with Putin? She was quite vocal about them.

Wright: That’s the interesting part. When Russia invaded Ukraine, her messaging about being quite close to Putin died overnight. There’s this story in the news that she had printed out thousands of leaflets showing her shaking Putin’s hand and that they had to go burn them because they realized they’d be counter-productive. Her tone on Russia and Ukraine also changed after the invasion, with Le Pen saying that she’s committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty, as her whole agenda revolves around the concept of an independent state. So, she underscored that it’s important that Ukraine can defend itself and that she supports it politically, militarily, and financially. She certainly downplayed massively her links to Russia; however, they’re still known, with Macron challenging her in a run-up to the second round of presidential voting. During a TV debate, he amplified that there’s evidence that Russian banks are funding her, really challenging her on that. So, despite the change of tone, her critics certainly see her as far too close to Putin.

Dubenko: Macron’s coalition, however, has not yet won the parliamentary elections. Is there a risk that he will end up with a hostile National Assembly? France is no stranger to so-called cohabitation [when the president and premier are political opponents].

Advertisement

Wright: Cohabitation has not occurred since the reforms of the early 2000s, when the president’s term in office was reduced from seven to five years, and presidential and parliamentary elections were aligned [they used to be held on different dates], allowing the president to secure majorities in  parliament. If he fails, it will be an exception. Lots of people still think his coalition will win even though the majority will likely be much slimmer. Either way, the opposition will make life very difficult for him, especially since they have already promised that. It’ll certainly be a different mandate for Macron.

Dubenko: In Ukraine, we introduced several new words at the beginning of the war that we believe reflect the reality quite well. Among them is the verb “to macron”, which means “to put on a very concerned face when something happens, show it to everyone, but do nothing to fix the situation.” I believe that people wanted, among other things, to emphasize the futility of Macron’s attempts to call up and reason with Putin. One hundred days into the war the French President still calls him now and again. Why, in your view, is he doing that? Is there something we are missing here? Perhaps he’s appealing to his voters?

Advertisement

Wright: I wasn’t aware of the verb “to macron.” I’ll certainly remember that one. That said, only Macron knows why Macron is doing these things. My colleagues at the Institut have criticized him, saying that his policies are not always clear, goal-wise. Still, I think that he believes that it’s better to maintain a diplomatic channel, in case a solution emerges. Even though few people in France think that’ll happen. Also, we shouldn’t forget that he always speaks to Zelensky before and after the calls – the allies too, so he’s not doing it on the side or independently from everything else that’s going on.

Dubenko:  As a Senior Fellow and Director of Institut Montaigne’s Europe Program, you deal with all things EU. How big is the impact of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on EU institutions?

Wright:  Huge. I can’t remember the EU ever being so united, acting so decisively and quickly – by European standards, naturally, as we mustn’t forget that we’re talking about 27 countries who are adopting massive sanctions against Russia. Although I think there are lessons to be learned to understand why they did not deter Russia from its aggression, which means we should probably revisit the sanctions policy. Ukraine still receives unanimous support and sizeable military, financial and political assistance. The real difficulties are coming now, because there are lots of questions about how to stop imports of Russian gas, a move that will disproportionately affect some EU member states and have enormous implications for European industry. There is political will, though, to do this, as the countries understand that Ukraine needs support and that they also need to do something where it hurts. These conversations are the most difficult ones, with Hungary already proving to be fairly disruptive. Still, I always say never underestimate the EU. It can take a while to get things done. However, when it has the political will, it will find a way, especially since it has realized that it can have an aggressive neighbor and that many countries want to join the EU. Accordingly, it can act as a geopolitical power if countries come together.

Dubenko: Do you feel that there is tension between EU institutions that seem to be quite keen on expediting Ukraine’s EU membership bid and those EU member states that are somewhat skeptical, if not outright against granting Ukraine EU candidate status?

Wright: Every EU institution – whether it’s the Council, the Commission or the Parliament – knows that they can only grant candidate status if everyone agrees. If you look at what’s happening in the Council, the majority of member states, probably all of them, would want to do it. However, certain considerations need to be taken on board, and I think that those difficult conversations are happening right now. Still, the countries are more united than people think. Some of them want to make sure not to pronounce themselves too quickly so that they’re able to offer one thing or another.

Dubenko: How likely is it that France will support Ukraine’s EU candidate status?

Wright: In his speech dated May 9, President Macron said we should recognize Ukrainian EU membership aspirations, but the negotiations process is complicated and could take years or decades. A lot of people read that France does not want Ukraine to join – but I think differently. I have to say that since being in Paris there has been a positive shift on enlargement, with people overwhelmingly recognizing Ukraine’s EU membership aspirations. The question is how complicated the whole venture is, as the EU must be able to absorb a country the size of Ukraine.mFrance has always said that enlargement must coincide with the deepening of the EU’s purpose.

Dubenko: In the address you’re referring to, he largely repeated what he said during his 2017 Sorbonne speech, adding that it is necessary to reform EU institutions that are too bulky and eliminate the principle of unanimity in sensitive areas like foreign policy. Will that happen?

Wright: Potentially, but I’m not sure it’s enough. A lot of decisions are made by consensus anyway, not by vote. I think the reform could help, but discarding unanimity is not an end in itself. I think there are fundamental differences between the member states and the way they see the EU’s role in general, what they want it to do in the future, whether the EU should have greater defense capabilities, and what it looks like – as well as how to ensure that the EU and NATO don’t duplicate each other. Those questions go beyond unanimity.

Dubenko: Is the idea of creating the United States of Europe, i.e., a federal Europe, still a popular one?

Wright: I don’t hear that expression very much, even though some people are still prone to the federalist vision. Most countries are happy that they have a say, can elect members of the European Parliament, and so on. Peculiarly, however, the EU recently held The Conference on the Future of Europe, and it turned out that many EU citizens want policies, which in practice means giving the EU a greater role. Following the collapse of the USSR, the notion was that history had ended and liberalism prevailed. Thirty years later the situation looks rather gloomy. And I’m not only talking about Russia, but China too. India and Brazil are also quite shaky. Where is the world heading today? What I see is an increase in tension and competing views, which is becoming much more visible and forcing countries to choose a side. There are a lot of questions. For example, whether the UN in its current form can continue, especially the Security Council. We’ve got wars going on, climate change, hunger and poverty. These are massive issues that will require global cooperation, the trick is how to do that when you’re in a world of increasing global tension.

Dubenko: I recently heard the suggestion that the war in Ukraine has increased Kyiv’s chances of accession to NATO.  Do you agree?

Wright: Not sure, to be honest, as it’s even difficult for Finland and Sweden to join because some of the allies have expressed their concerns. I think a lot of it depends on Ukraine, what it wants and how this war goes, will there be a settlement of sorts that Ukraine can accept, and what are its terms. It’s up to Kyiv, and right now it needs all the political support it can get.

Dubenko: What are you planning on working on next?

Wright: So much. I am keen on exploring the sovereignty issue and what the EU means for it. I’m also very interested in UK-EU relations, and whether the EU will become more political. It probably sounds boring to most people – but it’s exciting to me.

 

 

To suggest a correction or clarification, write to us here
You can also highlight the text and press Ctrl + Enter