“Relance, puissance, appartenance.” Inaugurating France’s six months presidency of the Council of the European Union in January, President Emmanuel Macron outlined the key three goals of the mandate: to re-boot the European economy post-Covid, to strengthen European sovereignty and to stimulate a sense of belonging among the citizens of the block.
The presidency of the EU is a position rotated between member states every six months. Its purpose is to chair and supervise the Council of Ministers, the institution within the EU that regroups the ministers of all member states. It will organise and preside over the Council, representing it to the other institutions of the EU until mid-June. France last held the rotating presidency in 2009, under Nicolas Sarkozy. Since then, the scope of the position has diminished under the 2009 Treaty of Lisbon, which instituted a permanent office for the President of the Council, currently, the Belgian Charles Michel.
Essentially, the role is to drive forwards and instigate certain aspects of European policy, whilst ensuring continuity with the 2019 Parliament’s legislative aims. The French have outlined several key policies that their presidency will aim to build upon. They will continue to work on the inauguration of a European Minimum Wage, a proposal from the Portuguese presidency of 2021, that secured the Council’s approval in December under the Slovene presidency.
We will also see the conclusion of the ‘Conference on the Future of Europe’, a pan-European citizens’ assembly providing a platform for people to voice their opinions and priorities on the EU’s trajectory. There are also hopes that the revolutionary legislative package of the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act might be completed, reinforcing the digital giants’ obligations to competition and their consumers.
However, France’s presidency will not be entirely focussed on continuity and the Union’s interests. A budget of 150 million euros has been allowed for the organisation of four-hundred political, administrative and cultural events across the semester.
The presidency of the EU is always a time when the country in question can put forwards their own diplomatic agendas. In the case of Slovenia, last semester, this meant a greater focus on the Western Balkans and the hosting of an EU-Western Balkan Summit in October.
This month will see the adoption of the ‘Strategic Compass’, a vision for EU security and defence that fits squarely within France’s traditional support for greater EU strategic autonomy. Whilst the Compass has provisions for greater military and defence cooperation, it also empowers the EU to face competition for resources, climate change and migratory pressures.
As always with the EU, migration figures prominently in the dialogue surrounding it. France has made clear it aims to “strengthen the Schengen area, control migration and improve the asylum policy” as part of its push for greater EU sovereignty. They will have to begin the task of rebuilding trust in European freedom of movement, after its effective suspension at various points during the pandemic.
Equally, they support opening negotiations for a migration treaty with the UK as part of increased political oversight of the EU’s borders. The Guardian reported a government source stating the French wished to put “more politics into the governance of Schengen”, reflecting the increasingly hostile dialogue around the issue across the Union.
The harsh stance taken by the French presidency on migration reminds us of the impact that this semester will have on domestic politics. In one month, the French will go to the polls to elect their president. The programme for this presidency is thus conceived with a mind to Macron’s re-election, though the Elysée maintains that they are entirely focussed on the Presidency, rather than the election. The vitriolic debate around migration that has marked the campaigns of several of his opponents is reflected in the Franco-European discourse. Commentators, meanwhile, suggest that the President hopes to benefit from his increased international standing stemming from the Presidency.
It remains unclear how much the French electorate will be influenced by Macron’s presidency of the EU when at the polls, but the collision of the two events will limit the timeframe within which the French can act. The election effectively truncates the semester in half, giving their already ambitious programme an even greater complexity.
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