French President Emanuel Macron arrives in Lithuania on Monday – the first French leader to visit the country in 19 years. LRT.lt gives an overview of the main issues surrounding the visit.
“France wants to demonstrate solidarity with the Baltic states. […] It is an opportunity for the French press to explain the relationship between France and the Baltics,” Tara Varma, head of the Paris office of the European Council on Foreign Relations, told LRT.lt. The French public opinion about Macron’s visit to Lithuania is positive, as it stirs interest in the little-known Baltic states. Meanwhile, for the French president, the visit also gives a chance to once again raise the question of EU solidarity and greater strategic autonomy, she said.
Since the rigged August 9 presidential election in Belarus, mass protests have been sweeping the country. The EU rejected the election results and did not recognise Aleksander Lukashenko as its legitimate president.
“This visit is linked to the events in Belarus. This is Paris’ way of demonstrating solidarity with the Baltic states,” Varma said.
Lithuania, along with its Baltic neighbours and Poland, was among the first countries to condemn election rigging and the Belarusian regime’s brutality against peaceful protesters. It also imposed sanctions on a long list of Belarusian officials, including Lukashenko.
According to Varma, Lithuania’s leadership amid the crisis in Belarus was noticed and recognised in Paris. France was also among the countries that pressured Cyprus to withdraw its veto that blocked EU-wide sanctions on Belarus.
Macron’s visit to Lithuania could lead to even greater EU support for the Belarusian opposition.
“Macron meeting the Belarusian opposition in Lithuania would send a strong message. It would be a game-changer and a way of telling Putin that Macron will do his own bidding despite talking with him,” Varma said.
During his visit, Macron will meet the French troops deployed in Lithuania and Latvia as part of the multinational NATO battalion.
“Among the Baltics, Estonia is closest to France because of its engagement in the Sahel,” Varma said.
Last year, Tallin almost doubled – from 50 to 95 – the number of Estonian troops engaged in Barkhane, the French-led anti-insurgent operation against Islamist groups in Africa’s Sahel region.
This summer, Lithuania also sent additional troops to Mali in response to France’s request. Two Lithuanian soldiers are part of the EU training mission in the West African country, while 49 joined the UN-led stabilisation and peacekeeping operation MINUSMA in Mali.
Europe is concerned about the upcoming US presidential election that could mean American troops retreating from the continent. Macron has previously raised an idea of an EU army that was rebuffed by many European politicians.
“The visit is also related to the European strategic autonomy. […] It is absolutely certain that France sees the Baltic states’ willingness to debate the question,” Varma said.
According to her, Macron recognised the Baltic states’ readiness to discuss his ideas about greater European strategic autonomy in the wake of increasing US-China competition.
“In these countries [the Baltics], the idea of European security is very important,” the expert said.
The French president might also use the visit to discuss his vision for reformed NATO. Last year, Macron called the military alliance “brain-dead”, which resonated negatively across Europe and especially in the Baltic states. Recently, he has expressed disappointment with NATO’s ignorance of the conflict between Greece and Turkey, its two member states.
“Paris saw a problem, so Macron talked about the need to reform conflict resolution inside NATO. […] Contrary to what most people think, France does not want to leave NATO, but to reinvigorate the alliance,” Varma explained.
Dialogue with Russia
Macron’s foreign politics is based on frequent bilateral visits. Recently, he went to Beirut, the capital of Lebanon that is recovering from a devastating explosion. The French president also stopped by in Iraq, organised a summit of seven European countries around the Mediterranean in Corsica, and sent the navy to Greece and Cyprus amid their dispute with Turkey.
Macron also offered to initiate a “strategic dialogue” with Russia. Observers speculated that such a strategy was meant to prevent Russia from getting closer to China, a country that the EU deemed a “systemic rival”.
But the French president did not coordinate with his European allies when opening a direct communication line with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Last summer, Macron hosted Putin at his private residence Fort de Brégançon near the Mediterranean.
Lithuanian and other leaders in the region criticised France’s steps to get closer to Russia. According to Varma, however, Paris understood the threat that Russia posed to its neighbouring countries. But Russia is also an important actor in Syria, where the country sends its private military operators and puts French interests at risk.
In the words of Varma, Macron aimed to reach a consensus. Recognising that Russia was a major security threat to some European countries, he also noted the risk of terrorism in France and asked for greater European solidarity.
The French president’s position on Russia has also somewhat changed. Recently, he demanded a strict European response to the events in Belarus, as well as the poisoning of the Russian opposition activist Alexei Navalny.
“Macron is slowly coming to terms with the fact that he’s going nowhere with Putin,” Bruno Tertrais of the Foundation for Strategic Research in Paris told The Economist. Additional reporting by Benas Gerdžiūnas at LRT English.