France’s EU Council Presidency: Between Bold Activism and Honest Broker

By Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer and Martin Quence, The German Marshall Fund, January 24, 2022


France’s presidency of the Council of the EU in the first half of this year will be shaped by three trends: the country’s presidential election in April, the management of external shocks and crises in and around Europe, and the structural changes or divisions in European strategic discussions. Depending on how these evolve, they will either galvanize or frustrate President Emmanuel Macron’s ambitions for the EU.

The priorities of France’s presidency of the Council of the EU mirrors some of its most pressing national debates. Macron wants to make Europe a decisive campaign issue as he seeks reelection. His goal is to show that the EU can deliver on issues of primary concern for French citizens, including migration, border control, and post-coronavirus recovery.

In short, the EU Council presidency is a continuation of his 2017 “Europe that protects” election agenda, which resonates with a French public debate obsessed with sovereignty, driven by the conservative and far-right parties.

Initiatives and reforms to strengthen the Schengen Area and to rethink partnerships with neighboring countries to deal with migration, in particular from Africa, have been announced. France also wants to capitalize on the post-coronavirus recovery plan to promote more fiscal solidarity among member states and common social-economic policies. Macron also articulates a European way to foster economic prosperity through innovation and technology while preserving the environment and meeting climate-change targets.

In parallel, international crises are already disrupting the agenda of France’s EU Council presidency, from China’s intimidation campaign against Taiwan and economic coercion toward Lithuania to Russia’s military buildup on the Ukrainian border, to arduous negotiations on Iran’s nuclear program. For Macron, the goal is to turn external shocks into opportunities to show that European sovereignty is not a choice but a necessity when faced with an increasingly hard-power and competitive world.

The lessons from the coronavirus crisis have rendered the idea of European sovereignty more concrete to voters as well as decision-makers. This frames Macron’s call for greater EU capacity to anticipate future crises, to plan responses, and to avoid being caught again unprepared and too slow in responding to sudden and fast-developing crises.

The message is the following: the EU needs to increase its autonomy to act on the issues that will matter to French and European citizens. The EU recovery plan, in which France played a pivotal role, embodies this ambition in several critical domains: health, pharmaceuticals, supply chains, and digital.


“Geopolitization” of the EU


For France, the recent evolutions in Europe’s strategic environment heighten the need for the “geopoliticization” of the EU to address the interlinked security and economic challenges other powerful states pose. Today’s geopolitical struggles reach into every area of modern life— through Europe’s data streams, its borders, its supply chains, its climate policy, and even its healthcare.

In this context, Macron is especially committed to showing that he can deliver on technological sovereignty for the EU. This includes being tough on Big Tech—a definite winner in France—as well as competing globally with the United States and China on everything from semiconductors to artificial intelligence.

France’s presidency of the EU Council will aim at upgrading the union’s bargaining power and capacity to take countermeasures against spoilers of European security and the international order. The EU has developed new instruments to strengthen its ability to act, such as the new framework of sanctions for human-rights violations or the stricter rules for the export of dual-use goods, which also applies to EU-produced cyber-surveillance technologies.

China’s campaign against Lithuania is another case in point, as France aims to have the EU’s new anti-coercion instrument endorsed to counter China’s trade measures against member states. This is viewed as a priority to demonstrate solidarity and to develop mechanisms that will help strengthen the EU’s sovereignty in trade and foreign policy.

The Russia-Ukraine crisis is a more complex issue. While EU members are involved in the diplomatic effort led by the United States, and mostly agree in their analysis of the situation, they are divided on the appropriate response and format for negotiations. Several member states are reluctant to design new economic sanctions—the EU’s main leverage—and the EU is sidelined by Russia, which is only interested in bilateral talks with the United States.

If the EU wants to be a strategic actor, it needs to have a clear idea of in which areas it can accept to depend heavily or entirely on external actors as well as of the nature of and relationship with these actors. For example, there is a difference between depending on the United States for security and depending on Russia for energy. Germany, rather than France, will be the most influential player here, however.

Finally, the French presidency will take stock of the different initiatives already implemented to strengthen the EU’s geopolitical standing and to foster the evolution of the European strategic debates. Over the past two years, European countries have gone through the distressing realization of their vulnerabilities and dependencies during the pandemic, an experience heightened by the ongoing supply-chain crisis. They have also faced a more assertive China and Russia’s military maneuvers and energy blackmail.

The Biden administration has conveyed reassuring messages to its European partners, but it has also met criticism in France for its mismanagement of key issues such as the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and the signature of its AUKUS security pact with Australia and the United Kingdom.

As a result of these developments, EU policy discussions have shifted on several topics. The signing of the coronavirus recovery plan in 2020 was a striking illustration that the range of possibilities had expanded and that new consensuses could be found on fiscal rules, defense and foreign policy cooperation, technological sovereignty, and climate change.

Germany’s new government backs France with regard to a more sovereign Europe and it has committed to increasing strategic sovereignty as rivalries between world powers negatively affect the EU. This requires a more mature relationship between them and the United States. The joint op-ed last November by the French and German ministers of foreign affairs encapsulated this ambition: “European sovereignty has grown over the years. We Europeans are no longer only asking ourselves what America can do for us, but what we should do to enhance our own security and build a more balanced transatlantic partnership. These are two sides of the same coin.”


Productive Disruption


France wants to see these developments as the beginning of a new chapter in European affairs, characterized by a common willingness to build a more autonomous EU in the competition with other great powers. It wants to show that European countries sharing more of the burden can be successful and that stronger EU defense efforts do not impede NATO, as illustrated by its intention to send troops to Romania as part of NATO effort in the Black Sea region.

For France, the presidency of the EU Council is therefore an opportunity to continue to influence this dynamic at the political level. It hopes that the release of the EU Strategic Compass, a foreign policy strategy plan, will symbolize this effort. But the ambition goes much further than a new strategic document: this is meant as a stepping-stone in the emergence of a geopolitical EU. The hardening of the position of member states on China is a sign of this trend, as is the shared willingness to meet the Russian challenge, although not with the same degree of intensity.

The risk, for France, would be to over-promise and under-deliver. Macron, a self-proclaimed “disruptor,” will continue to use the method he knows best: setting high ambitions and acting fact. His hope that the political context in Europe and in France will make it possible for him to get concrete results in a short time may be proved right.

However, structural blockages and political disagreements could also hinder France’s EU Council presidency. Macron’s vision for European defense triggers mixed reactions from other European countries, and his call for them to build a new security and stability order in response to Russia’s military threats spurs divisions.

Similarly, France’s plan to move fast on two ambitious pieces of EU legislation—the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act—and to enforce an EU carbon border tax is likely to raise tensions with the United States.

Striking the right balance between bold activism and acting as honest broker may be the main challenge for France during its presidency of the EU Council.