Analysis | Accelerating European sovereignty with France’s EU presidency
This piece is co-published with the The Wilson Center’s Global Europe Program, where this article first appeared on January 10, 2021.
On January 1, France assumed the helm of the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. For the next 6 months, France will be in the driver’s seat of the 27-member bloc. This is an opportunity to not only forge a stronger union but also to push forward on legislation that will shape the future of the EU. The French presidency’s timing is auspicious and comes at a time of upheaval and transition: not only are EU member states facing an uphill road to recovery in a seemingly unending pandemic, especially as the Omicron variant forces lockdowns across Europe, but it comes at a time without German Chancellor Merkel’s steady hand and as the French public decides on a new president in the coming months. French President Emmanuel Macron is seizing the moment, stating he will use the French presidency of the Council to accelerate the agenda for a sovereign Europe. While no single definition of European sovereignty exists, it loosely refers to recent calls for a strong, united Europe capable of independently addressing military and economic challenges. Domestically, France’s upcoming national elections heightens the stakes further, and, internationally, Washington must increasingly come to terms with the realities of a more independent Europe.
The official motto for France’s first EU presidency since 2008 is “Recovery, Strength and a Sense of Belonging.” Beyond this motto, Macron’s presidency is ambitious and seeks to move the needle on a number of key areas. He pledged numerous bold initiatives, such as moving forward on an EU migration pact, climate action, and the implementation of the draft Strategic Compass plan to set a common defense and security vision for the EU. A statement from the Elysée cited additional areas of focus, including: strengthening the mandate of Europol, the development of trade defense instruments, cybersecurity, the fight against disinformation, and sustainable finance. Intertwining Macron’s national presidency with the EU presidency will prove either beneficial to his political future or it could prove to be his undoing, if he fails to deliver on the ambitious goals he has set.
All politics is local
France’s EU presidency is drawing attention not just for its ambitious plans to strengthen the EU, but because halfway through the six-month presidency the people of France will vote on their next President (over the course of two rounds, on April 10 and 24) and hold legislative elections (on June 12 and 19). This isn’t the first time this has happened: the presidential election in 1995 also took place during the French Presidency of the Council of the EU. Despite calls on Macron to defer France’s presidency over concerns that national elections could disrupt the French government’s ability to deliver on its numerous pledges, the timing was too advantageous for Macron to pass up.
The first few months of the EU presidency will provide Macron an opportunity to demonstrate leadership on the EU level, especially in the void of Merkel and as the new German government establishes itself. In particular, strong leadership on the EU level will counter narratives by his far-right opponents that France is in decline. The French population is currently skewing towards becoming one of the most Euroskeptic countries in the EU, according to a report by the Institut Jacques Delors. Of the top four candidates for France’s presidency according to recent polls, Macron is the only contender not openly skeptical of the European Union.
The EU presidency was always going to be tied to national politics — the various candidates all seized on this opportunity to advance their visions of the EU. Green Party candidate Yannick Jadot suggested an expansion of the Commission’s Green Deal. Valérie Pécresse, president of the Paris region and likely candidate to face Macron in the second round of the election, used the opportunity to advocate for her own ultra-nationalist views, suggesting reforms to the EU’s migration policy and the Schengen area. The EU presidency became a political flashpoint when far-right candidates seized on the hoisting of an EU flag under the Arc de Triomphe as a sign of European identity overwriting French identity, ultimately generating enough outrage to prompt its removal. In reality, the French flag wasn’t replaced by an EU flag as the aspiring presidential candidates suggested, it was filling an empty space, as the French flag is only flown under the Arc on special occasions. A far-right, nationalist leader of France would put national priorities over the EU presidency and stall any discussions of a sovereign Europe, putting more pressure on Macron to win, for the sake of the wider union.
What does a sovereign Europe mean for the United States?
Macron’s vision of accelerating the European Union’s sovereignty stems from a speech he gave at the Sorbonne in 2017. He called for an autonomous Europe capable of defending itself and described using the economic power of the bloc as a tool. Beyond these two tools, the EU has taken on a larger mandate of regulating digital issues and has become a steward of the global green transition. France has been a key driver of this question of sovereignty, in part because it is one of the most articulate in its calls for greater sovereignty. Merkel echoed this sentiment, saying Europe needed to take its destiny in its own hands, as it could no longer necessarily rely on the United States due to statements at the time by Trump. The United Kingdom’s departure spurred talks of crafting a stronger EU in its absence, but the UK remains a key part of all security conversations through NATO. As is often the case, EU member states differ in their approach on how far to take this independence and in what arenas.
This move towards greater autonomy was met with consternation in Washington by the Trump administration, who perceived it as Europe pulling away from the United States. The previous administration’s perception was that a dollar spent on building a European army was a dollar less towards NATO funding. The Biden administration views these developments as largely positive: a stronger European Union means a stronger ally capable of relieving the United States of burdens and a better partner in the push to counter China. American audiences should follow this EU presidency closely — France will likely use this enhanced platform to dramatically increase the speed and depth of conversations about the EU’s role as an autonomous global power. This will necessitate important conversations about how the EU engages with the United States. Despite potential shifts in the balance of power on the horizon, the EU and the United States still depend on one another to address the challenges facing the world.
France’s EU presidency has auspicious timing and has great potential to drive forward the idea of a more sovereign EU. But it comes amidst the backdrop of a national election in France that is leaning more right-wing and risks undermining the bold promises of the French presidency of the EU. The Biden administration has conveyed it supports greater European autonomy but has left the EU to decide what form this will take. If Macron is successful, the concept and reality of EU sovereignty will continue to move forward. If not, the European project faces more uncertainty.
Jason C. Moyer is a program associate for the Global Europe Program at The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He is a 2017 graduate of ISD’s Certificate in Diplomatic Studies program.