For our last #BrusselsCalling media debate of 2021, Sir Ivan Rogers, former top UK envoy to the EU, quizzed journalists on what to expect from France’s EU Presidency which coincides with the contest for the Elysée presidential palace. On the panel, Cambre’s last before rebranding as SEC Newgate EU, were Gabriel Grésillon, former Brussels correspondent now Paris-based investigative journalist at French financial daily Les Echos; Sophie Pedder, Paris Bureau Chief at The Economist; Alex Pigman, Brussels correspondent at Agence France-Presse; and Céline Schoen, Brussels correspondent at French daily La Croix.
1. There’s a limit to what any presidency can introduce
Looking back on his experience of previous French Presidencies of the EU, Sir Ivan said the latest one promises to be as dynamic, professional and interesting as ever. However, he pointed out that there is a limit to any new input that a presidency can introduce to the existing EU agenda, as the Lisbon Treaty narrowed the scope for improvisation. As such, this French presidency will, to a large extent, inherit more than it will innovate. And with the French presidential elections looming in April, Sir Ivan predicted that domestic politics will trump all else. President Macron will only care about one thing in 2022: winning another mandate. He can therefore be expected to approach this Presidency through that prism. However, Gabriel Grésillon noted that while the presidentials will play a big part, the French Presidency of the EU should be seen as the end of a long-term process of strategic thinking on the French side. President Macron will be keen to achieve some strategic goals to push Europe in a French direction, he said.
2. An EU legislative peak for France
Despite assumptions about the impact of the French presidential elections, Céline Schoen pointed out that France is assuming the Presidency at a very special moment in the EU legislative calendar. She noted that the European Commission started working back in December 2019, so it has had a lot of time to put a lot of texts on the table – and is still doing so. What we hear from France, she said, is that the EU is currently at a ‘legislative peak’, with 250 legislative texts for the Presidency to work on. France is therefore well placed to achieve some success on some of these texts, she adds.
3. The new German coalition – a new momentum for France?
With the new coalition Government in Berlin keen to show that there is life after the leadership of Angela Merkel, Gabriel Grésillon said this could be a win-win moment for France on the European front. France and Germany have an history of carrying the European project forward together. Nevertheless, while the two countries have tended to see eye to eye on most EU matters, Céline Schoen observed that Berlin is willing to go further than Paris when it comes to the Conference on the Future of Europe. The German coalition, for example, stated its willingness to change EU treaties if reform is needed, something France has never publicly said. Alex Pigman added that the new German Government has been embracing a new ethos of being more transparent and saying what they are really doing, something that is ‘not very Quai d’Orsay’. This new ethos, he argued, is very present in Brussels, and a reality the French will have to learn to navigate.
4. European strategic autonomy – the divisive concept for 2022
The speakers predicted the notion of ‘strategic autonomy’ will be at the forefront of the French Presidency, be it with regard to the EU’s defence policy, its digital transformation or its social, cultural and economic model. For President Macron, the EU needs to become more independent on the world stage to defend itself and to shape the global world order. This concept however has not won support from all EU countries, with some preferring ‘strategic open autonomy’ in a bid to avoid an overly protectionist approach. Alex Pigman noted that France is very aware of this push for ‘a less Victor Hugo and a more Robert Schuman style of EU presidency’, but Céline Schoen said President Macron has been reluctant to add the ‘open’ adjective to his notion of European strategic autonomy.
5. A high profile presidency – a French direction for the EU
While this Presidency is an opportunity for France to shine on the global stage, Sophie Pedder, who wrote an acclaimed biography of President Macron, said it is also very aware of the risks and tensions ahead. Europe is part of President Macron’s DNA, so he will therefore be careful not to have any divisive battles during the French Presidency. Instead, the Presidency can be expected to focus on what is deliverable by wrapping up what is coming along through the legislative machine to claim it as a French victory, she said. Céline Schoen said an agreement between the European Council and the European Parliament on fair minimum wages across Europe is an example of a victory France is hoping to secure. In addition to concrete deliverables, this Presidency can be expected to shape the European debate going forward, added Sophie Pedder. The next six months will be key for France to get the European strategic autonomy debate moving in the French direction. And whether France likes it or not, the new German coalition might be crucial in achieving that ambition.