France and the EU Presidency

, by Afonso Morango

France and the EU Presidency
French President Emmanuel Macron during a press conference on France assuming EU presidency, in Paris, on December 9, 2021. (Ludovic MARIN / various sources / AFP)

On 1 January 2022, for the first time in 14 years, France will take over the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. This will be the first time since 2008 that France has held the EU presidency..

What is and what does the Council of the EU do?

The Council of the European Union - more commonly referred to simply as the Council - is the principal meeting place of the national governments of the EU. When the Community was founded in the 1950s many expected that in time, as joint policies were seen to work and as the member states came to trust one another more, the role of the Council would gradually decline, especially in relation to the Commission. This has not been the case. On the contrary, the Council has not only defended, but in some respects has extended its power and influence.

The functions undertaken by the Council can be classified in four ways: legislative – developing and making legislation; executive – taking direct responsibility in some policy areas for exercising executive power; steering – ‘devising the big bargains that orient the future work of the Union’; and forum – ‘providing an arena through which the member governments attempt to develop convergent national approaches to one or other policy challenges in fields where the Union does not have clear collective policy powers’.

Presidency of the Council

The presidency of the Council is held by EU member states on a rotating basis for six-month periods. During each six-month period, the presidency leads meetings at all levels within the Council, thus helping to ensure continuity of the EU’s work in the Council.

The member states holding the presidency work closely together in groups of three, known as “trios”. This system was established by the Treaty of Lisbon in 2009. The trio sets long-term objectives and prepares a common agenda setting out the themes and main issues that the Council will address over an 18-month period. Based on that agenda, each of the three countries prepares its own more detailed six-monthly programme.

The Council Presidency system after the Lisbon Treaty is thus that the Presidency is held for 18 months by groups of three member states, with each of the states assuming ‘the lead’ for six months.

France assuming

France is to take over the EU presidency in the six-month period, during which presidential elections will be held in the Hexagon.

Paris did not choose the schedule, and the programme of the French presidency of the European Union is a plan markedly affected by domestic politics. Starting on 1 January, the French EU Presidency also takes place in the middle of the health and climate crisis, growing global inequalities, but also in the face of rising tensions on the EU’s eastern border.

Power (international affirmation of European sovereignty), economic recovery, and belonging (European common way of life) are the three main axes under which Emmanuel Macron’s presidency of the EU Council will be conducted.

EU sovereignty

As Macron stated, the first objective of the French presidency will be to move from a Europe of cooperation within our borders to a powerful Europe in the world, fully sovereign, free to make its own choices and master of its own destiny. Macron’s intention to have greater control over European borders is clear and this goal is seen by the head of state as an indispensable condition in managing the migration crisis.

The French president called for a reform of the Schengen border-free area based on the model of the Eurozone and wants to implement more effective response mechanisms. Rather than being a static structure, France wants to see political coordination through a political steering committee and regular meetings between ministers.

France will also push for the creation of an Emergency Border Support Mechanism, drawing upon the EU´s own border agency - Frontex. The mechanism would, ideally, allow for law enforcement and equipment to be rapidly deployed when and where necessary. The president wants to continue working with countries of origin and transit, but also harmonise the rules for accompanying migrants and those governing secondary flows, that is, refugees or asylum seekers, who, for several reasons, move from the country in which they first arrive in to seek protection or resettlement elsewhere.

Macron’s foreign policy ambitions especially concern Europe’s defence and the adoption of the new strategic compass for defence and security policy will mark the European agenda in times to come.

A brand-new European model

More broadly, Macron called for “imagining a new European model” – an ambition that should be at the heart of the EU Council Presidency Summit that is set to take place in March.

Job creation and the fight against unemployment should be “obsessions” of the EU and we must guarantee Europe’s position and strength in defining the standards of tomorrow.

Macron wants to take advantage of the creation of a new German government to try to tinker with the Stability Pact and above all to include possible strategic public investment in the deficit - a difficult task for the French president. The new model will require adapted budgetary and financial rules and the French President called for the completion of a credible, simplified, and transparent framework.

Climate ambition

Under the French presidency, one of our objectives will be to implement the Border Carbon Emissions Adjustment Mechanism, Europe’s famous border carbon tax, which will allow us to make the green transition for all our industries while preserving our competitiveness, Macron stated. A European instrument to combat imported deforestation will also see the light of day, he added on.

For the French President, European actors have been the victims of efforts regarding the climate transition, and this must end. The Old Continent has particularly suffered from the latest climate crisis and France wants to see a more robust Europe on the energy market, with the green targets always in sight. The presidency will not waste a minute when it comes to pushing the texts forward.

Digital Agenda

On the digital front, France wants to see the successful conclusion of the EU’s Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA). When we know how to organise ourselves, we create standards on an international scale. The French president also stressed that they should contribute to the regulation and accountability of digital platforms.

The European bloc has clear technological dependencies and Macron wants to see this change, by transforming Europe in a digital power. We should act as Europeans so that Europe can catch up with its external competitors.

The rule of law is not negotiable

Regarding the rule of law debate that has divided Western and Eastern Europe, Macron warned that these are existential issues that cannot be negotiated and wants to work towards a more humane Europe.

In response to a question about the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the French leader said he was a political opponent but also a European partner.

France´s internal destiny

Macron does not know, however, whether he will remain president of France after April. The French presidency of the Council of the European Union could provide a platform for Macron’s campaign, but also complicate it if the race focuses mainly on domestic issues such as the French economy, security, and immigration. The traditional right has chosen the most “dangerous” candidate for the current French president - Valérie Pécresse.

According to the latest polls, Macron’s problem will be his potential to qualify in the first round with a certain amount of ease. Macron’s re-election, if it happens, will be far less flashy than the one four years ago.

For now we are left with the promises of the French president and France’s motto for the rotating EU presidency - recovery, power and belonging, whereby the last word serves to convey the idea of a European sense of community belonging.

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