Macron’s European Moment
“We must move from a Europe cooperating inside its borders to a Europe that is powerful in the world, fully sovereign, free of its choices and master of its own destiny.” In an hour-long speech at the Elysée Palace on December 9, President Macron presented his ambitions for France’s presidency of the Council of the European Union, which is taking place from January to June 2022. Four years after his seminal address at the Sorbonne University on Europe’s future, the French president wants to seize this rare moment—the last French presidency was in 2008—to shape the European Union’s agenda and priorities. While Macron’s European project might have lost momentum because of the pandemic and lingering divisions among Europeans, the time seems ripe for bold initiatives. Despite a deteriorated strategic environment and an uncertain public health situation, Paris has set high ambitions and will benefit from the likely support of the new German government and a more sympathetic U.S. administration.
The rotating presidency of the council is an opportunity for member states to lead policymaking priorities within the bloc. For six months, they chair and plan meetings across the council to advance their presidency goals. These priorities are designed in a “trio” system: the three successive member states that will hold the presidency (France, the Czech Republic, and Sweden in the present case) agree on an agenda for the next 18 months and allocate priorities. However, the presidency has some limits: it does not make presiding member states the ultimate decisionmakers in legislative processes or negotiations. The rotating chair can neither introduce just any item to the agenda nor substitute its own view for that of the council. In other words, it can drive topics but must remain an honest and neutral broker.
The End of a Cycle
The French presidency concludes a turbulent cycle that started in 2014. After the invasion of Ukraine, the European Union and its members had to reckon with a transformed strategic environment. This was compounded by the slow recognition of China as a systemic rival both in Europe and elsewhere. The continued impact of the financial crisis, the migration crisis, the departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union, the 2016 U.S. presidential election and subsequent transatlantic tensions, and democratic backsliding in some EU member states all contributed to an extended period of uncertainty. This cycle engulfed the bloc for several years, prompting both soul-searching and policy changes.
Ultimately, these shocks have led Europeans to take concrete steps toward shouldering more responsibilities for their security and defense. After years of shrinking defense budgets, European countries have started to increase their military expenditure at a steady pace in line with NATO’s Defense Investment Pledge. With the support of the European Commission, EU member states have forged new instruments designed to spur collaborative armament projects, such as the European Defense Fund (EDF) or the Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). Major industrial programs have been launched among Europeans, especially between Paris and Berlin with the future combat air system or the next-generation battle tank. Europeans have also increased their military engagement from the Mediterranean Sea to the Sahel and even the Indo-Pacific.
Yet, though these developments are encouraging, European ambitions have progressively run out of steam or failed to produce concrete outputs. Many EU member states have expressed doubts about the objective of a more sovereign or autonomous Europe, fearing that it would fuel U.S. disengagement from Europe and its vicinity or increase their own defense burden. The Covid-19 pandemic further complicated European efforts on security and defense, with member states forced to focus on the response to this unprecedented health crisis. Though EU funding for defense was reduced compared to initial targets because of Brexit and necessary budgetary compromises, the pandemic’s economic pressure will continue to bear on those ambitions. Berlin also had to lower its ambitions for its rotating presidency in the second half of 2020, with modest results on security and defense.
While these tensions remain today, France is nonetheless in a much better place than Germany one year ago. Europe seems to be entering a new cycle marked by more appetite for policy renewal. The new government in Germany will likely be more forward-leaning on many EU policies—Chancellor Olaf Scholz met with Macron in the first few days of his mandate, showing a clear desire to work together to move Europe forward. Similarly, the recent French-Italian rapprochement should help Paris advance its European agenda, provided there is leadership continuity in Italy. The Biden administration is, at least rhetorically, more supportive of collaboration with European allies, as shown in the French-U.S. declaration of October 2021 in which Washington recognized “the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense.” NATO’s update of its Strategic Concept, roughly coinciding with the European Union’s release of its own Strategic Compass, offers another opportunity for proactive transatlantic alignment.
An Ambitious Agenda
While previous presidencies were absorbed by the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, France wants to turn the page on the crisis with a forward-looking agenda encapsulated in the motto “recovery, strength, belonging” (“relance, puissance, appartenance”). First, in his address Macron stressed the need for a strong economic boost in the aftermath of the pandemic, calling for a “new European growth model” for the decade ahead. The French president notably stressed the need for greater investments in strategic sectors (from semiconductors to space and health), the decarbonization of economies, and the importance of an integrated digital market. To spur investments, Paris is considering an adaptation of the EU budgetary framework and its austerity rules, a step that could meet resistance from other EU member states—including Germany. France will host a summit on March 10 and 11 to discuss these issues.
Second, Paris will push for a “more sovereign Europe,” beginning with security and defense. In March 2022, member states are set to adopt a Strategic Compass. This document will establish a common threat assessment and tangible priorities. Macron notably mentioned the need for stronger defense industries, joint exercises, and greater engagement in the maritime, space, and cyber domains. Stronger EU partnerships will be also at the heart of the French presidency, with an EU-African Union summit in February, a ministerial forum on the Indo-Pacific that same month, and a conference on the Western Balkans in June. Macron’s comments on the need to invest in the Western Balkans’ integration are a further sign of his commitment to a stable neighborhood, though he did not elaborate on the enlargement issue or associated initiatives.
This more “sovereign” Europe is also tied to the issue of migration, on which President Macron called for a stronger political management of the Schengen Area (which guarantees free movement across the European Union) and proposed the creation of an emergency mechanism to support member states under pressure, a demand currently emanating from eastern member states facing an instrumentalization of migration by the Belarussian regime. The speech’s focus on the migration challenge—on which it opened—also hints at the pressure the French president faces from right-wing parties ahead of the French presidential election in April 2022.
Third, France will seek to promote a “human Europe,” one that is committed to its values and closer to its citizens, a clear shot at current attempts to degrade the rule of law and revise history across the bloc. Macron presented European values as “existential” and proposed ways to better support democratic freedoms, notably by funding independent and investigative journalism. In response to revisionist currents, Paris will launch a historiographical work on European history involving academics from across Europe. The French presidency will also be an opportunity to encourage greater people-to-people interactions, especially through education (e.g., meeting of universities of Europe, expansion of the Erasmus program). Macron’s years-long push for a more integrated European Union at the citizens’ level was streamlined throughout this final pillar.
This French presidency of the European Union will not come without challenges. The first one will be its concomitance with the French presidential elections, whose first round will take place on April 10, 2022. The closer France gets to the elections, the more the government will focus on the domestic campaign. French officials have also an obligation of “electoral neutrality,” which limits their public appearances a few weeks before the elections (both in France and abroad). Paris will therefore have only a few months, three at best, to make the most of this presidency and advance its European priorities.
France might also face unexpected events given the volatility of today’s strategic environment. In 2015, the Luxembourg presidency was overtaken by the migration crisis, as was the German presidency in 2020 with the Covid-19 pandemic. Paris could face strategic upheavals, from a Russian military offensive against Ukraine to an unforeseen crisis in Europe’s southern neighborhood. Similarly, the presidency could be challenged by the Omicron variant. Current knowledge charts two possible paths. If the variant spreads more easily and is more lethal, France’s presidency priorities will likely be reassessed to focus on the fight against this virus. However, if Omicron is more contagious but leads to similar types of infection (or milder)—as is becoming more likely—France could well preside over one of the final chapters of this crisis, with boosters due to be rolled out more widely across the bloc in the winter of 2022.
France and its EU partners will also have to reckon with continued tensions with the United Kingdom. The ripples from Brexit continue to rock the relationship, be it around fishing agreements or customs checks in Northern Ireland. Though France has been at the center of some of these disputes, negotiations will likely continue under a united EU front. On the UK side, policy inconsistency could drag the process on as Prime Minister Boris Johnson continues to battle multiple scandals and conflicting demands from his party. If London and Brussels can reach a satisfactory position on outstanding issues, reduced tensions would benefit both sides economically and politically. This would also benefit Europe given the United Kingdom’s strong security and defense profile.
France has set high expectations ahead of its presidency. Six months is a short period of time to implement such an ambitious agenda and will be made even shorter by the presidential election. Ongoing strategic and health challenges will make France’s task even more difficult. Paris will have to navigate turbulent waters including tensions with Moscow, the persistence of the pandemic, and lingering disputes with London. In order to succeed and have lasting results, France will need to secure political support across the European Union, starting with Berlin and the following member states holding the presidency (the Czech Republic and Sweden).
For President Macron, this presidency is an opportunity to round off a years-long pledge to push both Europe and France forward. The French president has often stressed how European progress and domestic change are intertwined, and this will be no exception. He laid out this conviction as early as 2017 in his opening remarks at the Sorbonne University: “I have come to talk to you about Europe. Some will say ‘again.’ They will have to get used to it because I will continue. And because our fight is indeed there, it is our history, our identity, our horizon, what protects us and what gives us a future.”
Pierre Morcos is a visiting fellow with the Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Donatienne Ruy is an associate fellow with the CSIS Europe, Russia, and Eurasia Program.
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