France at the helm: a guide to the French EU Presidency

France will hold the Presidency of the Council of the European Union between 1 January and 30 June. The success of this Presidency will be a key element of President Macron’s re-election bid. He has placed Europe at the heart of his political priorities and sees this as an opportunity to showcase French leadership in EU politics, as the new German government finds its feet. On 9 December, he unveiled its ambitious programme for the EU Presidency: Under the headline theme of ‘EU sovereignty’, the main priorities for France are the post-covid economic recovery, climate change, digital policy, social issues and defence.

France’s ambitious programme will affect EU policies across a wide-range of sectors, by advancing key legislative files and by setting the terms of the debates on most of the current issues. In a complex economic context, the French government will be attentive to initiatives from the private sector that could reinforce its priorities.

A political EU presidency

As traditional as a new EU Member State holding the Presidency of the Council of the EU can be, a major player like France can have an important role in setting the agenda for the Council.

Council presidencies are often highly politicised domestically, especially during an election year. Two major elections will be held during the French presidency: the Presidential election in April and the parliamentary election in June. This creates a timing constraint: from the end of March, the official campaign for the Presidential election will limit the government’s ability to make significant policy announcements. The main policy initiatives of the French Presidency will therefore come during the first three months.

Europe is at the heart of Emmanuel Macron’s political project, and the success of his Council Presidency will be essential for his re-election bid. Some of his main opponents are anti-EU. Macron must consolidate his core electorate of voters around his pro-European and pro-reform agenda. Therefore, the French Presidency priorities and narrative will be focused on the French audience.

The French Agenda

Emmanuel Macron has carefully prepared the ground in recent years. The Elysée has been working with the Commission to help re-shape the EU agenda. While working with key Member States, he has also formed strong and sometimes new alliances to build upstream compromises on big issues. The formation of a German government is a positive development: Germany has provided vital support for the implementation of French initiatives in the past.  France will face political and institutional constraints. With two domestic elections – Presidential and parliamentary – scheduled in April and June, the first three months of the Presidency will be key to advance France’s EU priorities.

President Macron set out his priorities during a press conference on 9 December. The central theme is how to strengthen the EU’s sovereignty and independence. The keywords are ‘recovery, power and belonging’ with various priorities:

  • Economic recovery post-covid: France wants to create consensus on the method and pace of the recovery, and to discuss reform of the growth and stability pact. The French government is also considering whether to give more competence to the EU on health-related issues. President Macron insisted on the need to channel innovation and investments to the EU, in every sector in order to build “a new European economic model” by 2030.
  • Climate change: implementation of the EU ‘Fit for 55 agenda’, particularly advancing the carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM) and moving forward on the ETS reform. In addition, energy-related issues are high on the French agenda (taxonomy, energy pricing), as well as the need to protect biodiversity and deforestation.
  • Digital: the French will want to show results on the Digital Markets Act (DMA) and the Digital Services Act (DSA). France is confident that they will complete the trilogues process for the DMA in the first three months.
  • Social issues: President Macron wants to strengthen the EU’s social agenda, and accelerate the Commission proposal for an EU-wide minimum wage.

Complex geopolitics

The French presidency will take place in a turbulent international environment. Tensions are high between Russia and Ukraine. Migration issues are high on the agenda in Poland and between France and the UK. Macron will also look at strengthening the EU’s presence in the Indo-Pacific region following the AUKUS deal in September, which excluded France and the EU. This is part of the broader challenge to find a balance in the EU’s political and trade relationships with the US and China.

The relationship with the UK is also tense on Northern Ireland Protocol, fisheries and migration issues. France will be keen to unite the EU behind a tougher approach to put pressure on the UK to fulfil its international obligations.

President Macron stressed the importance of the stability and prosperity of the EU neighbourhood during his speech on 9 December: the EU-Africa relationship will be key, and an EU-Africa Summit will be organised on 17-18 February in Brussels with a focus on key issues such as education, health and climate change. The Occidental Balkans region will also be a key area to watch for Europe and for the peace and stability of the region; in June 2022, France will organise a Conference on Occidental Balkans.

On all these issues, France will use its Presidency to strengthen the EU’s place in the world, seeking adoption of the EU Strategic Compass, a policy document identifying common geopolitical threats. While limited progress is expected on defence integration, France aims to convince Member States that the EU should defend its interest more assertively, for example on trade.

François-Joseph Schichan is Director at Flint. He wrote this piece with input from Flint Senior Advisers Philip Cordery and Julian King  and Consultant Corentin Lescroart. To find out more about how Flint can help you navigate the risks and opportunities of these developments get in touch.  

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