An ambitious presidency disrupted by the Russian invasion of Ukraine. This is how to sum up the six months of the French presidency of the Council of the European Union (PFUE), which ends on Thursday 30 June. French diplomats must pack up before leaving Brussels and send the unfinished files to their Czech counterparts, whose country recovers the rotating presidency until December 31.
Launched with great fanfare by a speech by Emmanuel Macron to the European Parliament on January 19, the PFUE was intended to be ambitious. A little too much, surely. Reform of the Schengen area, European defence, climate, minimum wage, reflection on the institutions… The French roadmap was dense, especially since the President wanted to associate it with a reflection on the future of the Union. However, the presidency of the Council of the EU has above all a role of “facilitator”, which aims to advance European legislation by obtaining compromises between the 27, the Commission and the Parliament.
Geopolitical news, however, hit the ambitions of Emmanuel Macron and Clément Beaune, then Secretary of State for European Affairs, on February 24, when Russia invaded Ukraine. Priorities changed and France found itself forced to coordinate the European response to the conflict. “The French presidency helped keep the EU united during the war and very effectively pushed through the first five rounds of sanctions against Russia”estimated with franceinfo Nicolai von Ondarzahead of the Europe division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs.
An opinion shared behind the scenes in Brussels, where it is estimated to have been able to count on the French know-how in terms of diplomacy. “It’s a good thing that France had the head of the Council, firstly because it is part of the Normandy format [réunions qui réunissaient la France, l’Allemagne, l’Ukraine et la Russie lors de l’invasion de la Crimée par Moscou en 2014], but also because she weighs politically and has moderate opinions”adds Nicoletta Pirozzi, head of the European program at the Rome-based Institute of International Affairs. “Finding compromises would have been more complicated if one of the Baltic countries, for example, had been at the head of the Council.”
France, “the right country, in the right place, at the right time”, according to Sébastien Maillard, director of the Jacques-Delors Institute, has even been able to demonstrate flexibility, particularly regarding its own sticking points. Long opposed to EU enlargement without a prior reform of the functioning of the institutions, it finally accepted a compromise on the granting of candidate country status to Ukraine and Moldova.
Still, the war in Ukraine has not conditioned all the contours of this PFUE. The French presidential election in April and the legislative elections in June also had an impact on the Paris programme. “We felt, from the start, that France had concentrated most of the important initiatives in the first three months”emphasizes Nicolai von Ondarza. Result, Emmanuel Macron, very present in Brussels from January to March, fell back on national politics from April, even if, in the European institutions, French diplomats and negotiators continued to work.
“In general, we felt that Europe was a priority for the Elysée”, judge Sophie Pornschlegel, political analyst at the pro-European think tank European Policy Center (EPC) in Brussels. In detail, the 27 for example agreed, on June 7, on new rules aimed at setting decent minimum wages in the various member countries. “It is an important measure from a political point of view, even if it will be necessary to see its implementation in the Member States”points out Nicoletta Pirozzi.
The question of European defence, one of the priorities of Paris, has also largely advanced thanks to the adoption of the strategic compassa document that defines the threats facing the EU, such as Russian aggression or China’s double game, and how the Union must respond. the climate package and “adjustment to target 55”which aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 55% by 2030, has also been able to make significant progress, with France even achieving a compromise on several texts on June 28, reporting France 24. “We can in particular talk about the carbon tax at the borders, a first, for which France has reached a political agreement”, emphasizes Sébastien Maillard. Finally, if Paris has not succeeded in finding a compromise around the regulation of digital services, the aim of which is to better control content shared online by imposing new rules on Gafam, one of its priorities, “He has made great progress on the subject”. The text will be finalized by the Czech Presidency.
From there to talk about “massive balance sheet”as did Sunday, June 26 Clément Beaune, now Minister Delegate in charge of Europe, on France 3? “This relative success of the French presidency is largely due to an efficient administration and good negotiators. A little less to the leadership of Emmanuel Macron”shade Nicolai von Ondarza. In the corridors of the European institutions, some are annoyed to see France presenting agreements as victories obtained only by Paris, according to diplomatic sources at France Télévisions. The weak “English level of negotiators” could even sometimes “to slow down” negotiations, believes Sophie Pornschlegel.
Moreover, French ambition has not borne fruit on all subjects. “France had prepared a plan to reform migration policy, but it was completely shelved because of the war in Ukraine”, regrets Nicoletta Pirozzi. Another disappointment “the Hungarian veto on the minimum tax on multinationalswhich really annoyed the French”notes Sophie Pornschlegel, while an agreement on this minimum tax of 15% on profits seemed close.
Finally, the desire for economic reforms, in particular the questioning of the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) or the implementation of a second post-Covid-19 recovery plan, have been showered. “It’s simple, we have completely changed the subject”, sighs Sébastien Maillard, who recalls that the summit of March 11, in Versailles, which was to revolve around economic subjects, was finally devoted to Ukraine and questions of energy independence. A change of program which enabled the 27 to make rapid progress on these last two themes.
Among the failures is also the assessment of the promises of transformation of the EU made by France. Six months later, very little has moved forward. Nicolai von Ortanza wants proof of thisa Conference on the Future of Europewhich brought together European citizens drawn by lot to reflect on the future of the EU, which concluded in May: “Ultimately, the conclusions were hijacked by Parliament, which used them to demand a change in the treaties. Even if Macron is for it, he failed to get the other countries to agree. It fell flat.”
The observation is the same for the European Political Community (EPC), proposed by Emmanuel Macron. The other members reacted cautiously to the idea of a new institution which would include neighboring countries of the EU such as Ukraine or the United Kingdom. A proposal that collects for the moment little enthusiasm, but which has the merit of existing, judges Sophie Pornschlegel.
“We notice that France was strong enough to talk about new concepts such as the CPE or strategic autonomy. They dominated the debates. This is a good thing, because new visions are needed for the EU and that we are making progress on these subjects.”Sophie Pornschlegel
expert at the European Policy Centre, at franceinfo
The French presidency of 2022 will in any case have been “better conducted than that of 2008during which Nicolas Sarkozy wanted to put himself at the center of the game during the conflict in Georgia”believes Nicolai von Ondarza. “France has a rather good record”, Sophie slice Pornschlegel. It is now up to the Czech Republic to take over and move forward on ongoing issues, including on climate, economy, energy security and the ongoing consequences of the war in Ukraine.