November 8, 2019 / 5:24 PM / a month ago

Macron's blunt NATO diagnosis was risky but necessary, French officials say

PARIS (Reuters) - Emmanuel Macron’s blunt diagnosis that NATO is “brain dead” has upset other Europeans, but that’s a risk the French president is prepared to take if it stops them turning a blind eye to an ever more dangerous world, officials in Paris say.

France's President Emmanuel Macron reacts as he holds a meeting with Tadjikistan's President Emomali Rahmon (not pictured) at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France November 8, 2019. REUTERS/Gonzalo Fuentes/Pool

In an interview with The Economist magazine, Macron warned Europe it could no longer rely on the United States to defend its allies and they needed to take security into their own hands.

Although Macron has long urged Europe to think of itself as an autonomous “sovereign power”, his damning verdict on the 70-year old NATO alliance sparked strong reactions, with Germany’s Angela Merkel calling it too “drastic”.

But for the 41-year-old president, plain speaking is needed to shake Europe out of its torpor before NATO’s Dec. 4 summit in London.

“We’re perfectly aware it’s risky,” a French official told Reuters. “When you tell it like it is, it’s inevitable that you spark irritations, tension, sometimes divisions.”

“It can hurt initially, but sometimes that becomes the basis for future unity,” the official said. “Some countries want to sweep under the carpet what happened in Syria and we think it’s extremely dangerous.”

Europe could not stop Turkey launching an offensive in Syria and was caught off guard by U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to pull his troops from the area, where France and others were fighting Islamic State.

EASTERN EUROPE UNEASE

Macron’s comments caused considerable unease in eastern Europe, which sees the United States as the only guarantor of its independence from a resurgent Russia.

“I can’t say that this statement made us very happy,” Lithuanian president Gitanas Nauseda told reporters in Rome.

In Estonia, which shares a border with Russia, the vice chairman of parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Marko Mihkelson, said Macron’s comments were sending a “dangerous signal”.

“Macron may be yearning for the United States of Europe with its own military, but deliberately destroying the transatlantic alliance, something that brings us together and helps us more effectively face the dangers of the world, that’s just moronic.”

Poland, long at odds with France on defense issues after it scrapped an Airbus military contract in 2016 to buy U.S. equipment instead, also expressed “concern”.

‘OSTRICHES’

But French officials say Macron was only stating the obvious, and it was Trump who had previously questioned U.S. commitment to NATO by calling it “obsolete”.

“Europeans are ostriches who don’t want to see their beloved world is fading,” former French ambassador to Washington Gerard Araud said on Twitter.

Neither is Macron reverting to a Gaullist, anti-American world view, French officials say, pointing out that he has tried hard to keep Trump close to Europe since he was elected.

“I care a lot about this relationship and have invested a great deal in it with President Trump,” Macron told The Economist.

“But we find ourselves for the first time with an American president who doesn’t share our idea of the European project, and American policy is diverging from this project. We need to draw conclusions from the consequences,” he said.

Although Macron has launched initiatives to strengthen Europe’s defense capabilities, he says they can only complement rather than replace NATO, and it is not entirely clear how he wants to fix NATO’s problems.

“The idea was to spark debate, it’s not up to us to decide the landing point. We have no pre-defined plan in mind,” a French official said.

Additional reporting by Andrius Sytas in Vilnius; Tarmo Virki and Gederts Gelzis in Stockholm; Justyna Pawlak and Alan Charlish in Warsaw and Marine Pennetier in Paris; Writing by Michel Rose in Paris; Editing by Giles Elgood

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