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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

The end of the Trump-Macron bromance: frosty exchange does not bode well for the transatlantic alliance

French president's vision of a European defence force is unrealistic in the face of heavy reliance on America's military superiority

US President Donald Trump with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris las weekend. Christophe Petit-Tesson / AFP
US President Donald Trump with French President Emmanuel Macron at the Elysee Palace in Paris las weekend. Christophe Petit-Tesson / AFP

It was not so long ago that French President Emmanuel Macron entertained genuine hopes of positioning himself as Washington’s most favoured leader in Europe.

With Britain poised to leave the European Union, the opportunist president believed there was a once-in-a-generation opportunity to position France as America’s key European partner in a transatlantic alliance.

Historically, this was a position that Britain had held since the Second World War, with the close military and intelligence-sharing relationship between Washington and London forming the bedrock of American dealings with Europeans. In the build-up to the ill-fated invasion of Iraq in 2003, former prime minister Tony Blair described Britain’s role as being a “bridge” between Washington and the continent, prompting one German wit to remark that the problem with Mr Blair’s bridge was that the traffic only flowed in one direction.

It was to maintain this so-called bridge that the Washington establishment was very much in favour of Britain remaining in the EU, not because officials believed it was in Britain’s interests to do so but because having Britain participate in the EU’s innermost deliberations helped dilute some of the union’s less appealing traits, such as its protectionist trade policies and latent anti-Americanism.

But with Britain heading for the exit, Washington has been keen to find a new ally. While Germany might have seemed the obvious choice, the fact that the country is seen to be the main driver behind many of the EU’s economic policies, as well as Berlin’s reluctance to fulfil its Nato obligations, has persuaded the Americans to look elsewhere.

That seemed an opportunity too good to miss for Mr Macron who, ever since his election, has styled himself as an enthusiastic advocate of a reform agenda for the EU. And having a good relationship with Washington is seen as a useful way of strengthening France’s position within the EU framework.

To this end, Mr Macron has gone out of his way to court Donald Trump from the moment he entered the White House. While the rest of Europe has made no secret of its distaste for Mr Trump’s brash style of conducting politics, Mr Macron has assiduously courted Mr Trump, making him his guest of honour at last year’s Bastille Day celebrations.

And, for a time, it appeared Mr Macron’s efforts were paying dividends. In April, the French president became the first foreign leader to be granted the honour of a state visit, during which Mr Macron, together with his wife Brigitte, was feted at the White House, with Mr Trump describing them as “cherished guests”. Not since Tony Blair was given a standing ovation in Congress in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks has a European leader been the recipient of such adulation in Washington.

Now, thanks to Mr Macron’s ill-advised handling of last weekend’s Armistice Day commemorations marking the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, the entente between Washington and Paris can no longer be described as cordiale.

For whatever rosy glow might have survived Mr Macron’s so-called “bromance” with Mr Trump earlier this year has completely dissipated after the French president’s clumsy remarks regarding his aspirations to create a European defence force.

The creation of such an organisation is very much in keeping with Mr Macron’s vision of transforming the EU into a European superstate to rival other major global powers such as China, Russia and the US. Indeed, it was Britain’s longstanding opposition to the creation of such an entity that contributed significantly to the country’s decision to break with the EU in 2016.

With Britain no longer able to block the EU’s expansionist aspirations, Mr Macron believes the time has come to press ahead with the establishment of a dedicated European defence force, one that can act independently of Washington, to protect European interests.

The idea is not a new one and previous attempts to promote the creation of such a force have been dropped after strong opposition from Washington and London, which argue that the Nato alliance, which has succeeded in keeping the peace in Europe for nearly 70 years, is a better option.

But, following Mr Trump’s recent decision to withdraw from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Mr Macron believes he has a chance to revive his ambitions to create an independent defence force, arguing that Europe can no longer rely on Washington for its protection.

What has really riled Mr Trump, though, is not so much the suggestion that Europe should pursue its own defence agenda, but the way in which Mr Macron expressed his plans last weekend when Mr Trump was in Paris for the centennial events. The French leader caused Mr Trump grave offence when he said that, apart from protecting Europe from emerging powers such as China and Russia, such a force might be needed to defend the continent in future from the US.

Given that America’s military contribution to both world wars was instrumental in securing the Allied Forces’ eventual victory, such comments were neither smart nor diplomatic.

At the time, Mr Trump responded by tweeting that he found Mr Macron’s comments “very insulting”. Now the US leader has clearly decided to give up on his on-off courtship of the French president, mocking him by claiming Parisians would be speaking German, had it not been for America’s intervention in both world wars.

For good measure, Mr Trump also launched an attack on France’s protectionist trade policies, particularly French tariffs on imports of American wine. “Not fair, must change,” Mr Trump tweeted ominously.

While on one level, the diplomatic spat between the French and American presidents has produced some great entertainment, on another it does not bode well for the future of the transatlantic alliance. Like it or not, Europe’s defence relies heavily on America’s overwhelming military superiority, without which Europe and its allies would find themselves badly exposed.

Con Coughlin is the Daily Telegraph’s defence and foreign affairs editor