France ends its EU Presidency on a high note despite tough political context
Our Brussels and Paris offices assess the results from the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union which took place from January – June 2022.
Grounded on three key principles, namely “recovery, power and belonging”, the programme of the French Presidency was set up to achieve “a more sovereign Europe” and foster its strategic autonomy. So, what was achieved in the past 6 months and how will it impact the EU?
“Europe of January 2022 is not the same as Europe of June 2022”
French President Emmanuel Macron after the last European Council Summit under the French Presidency (24 June 2022)
Most EU experts agree that the programme of the French Presidency was ambitious; perhaps too ambitious. The 6-month period was disturbed by major crises, with the return of war on the European continent and a looming economic, energy and food crisis. With over 400 events held, more than 130 agreements reached, and over 2000 meetings of EU officials, French diplomats undeniably managed to make their presidential term a dynamic one. Overall, Paris achieved some big political wins, but also suffered some drawbacks
Significant progress on key legislative files
Some the of the presidency’s major achievements related to digital policy. The Digital Markets Act (DMA), which was fully agreed upon on 24 March, and the Digital Services Act (DSA), for which a provisional political agreement was found on 23 April. While the DMA creates competition rules for online commerce, the DSA regulates the responsibility of digital platforms in the dissemination of online content. Moreover, a proposal regarding the enforcement of the EU’s Artificial Intelligence Act was endorsed and a general approach on the governance framework for digital transformation was reached. Paris also succeeded in passing a new tool promoting reciprocity in access to international public contracts, ensuring fairer access for European companies competing in tenders abroad.
On the environmental front, the Council reached an agreement on most of the key files of the Fit for 55 package, allowing the European Parliament and the Council to begin negotiations in September. A general approach was agreed upon for the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) on 15 March, on the alternative infrastructure regulation (AFIR), the FuelEU Maritime and ReFuelEU Aviation directives on 2 June, and on the revision of the energy efficiency directive (EED) and of the renewable energy directive (RED) on 27 June. The reform of the Emissions Trading System (ETS) also passed in the Council on 28 June. However, with France racing to conclude negotiations before handing over the Presidency to the Czech Republic on 1 July, some Member States complained that Paris was overly cautious and too willing to water down some of the texts. Indeed, most of the agreements are largely aligned with the Commission’s initial proposals, and in some cases include exemptions and derogations, while the European Parliament has essentially been pushing for greater ambition. Against this background, the upcoming trilogue negotiations on most of these files are expected to be challenging.
The winding path towards a more geopolitical, democratic, and social EU
France’s ambition to make the EU a true geopolitical power only partially materialised. The Presidency did manage to conclude the work on the Strategic Compass, the white paper for European defence and security that was endorsed by the European Council on 24 and 25 March 2022. Some progress was also achieved on the flagship directive on minimum wages, with a provisional agreement reached with the European Parliament on 7 June. However, Central and Eastern European countries, especially Poland and Hungary, remain suspicious and are not fully convinced. Along the same lines, the proposal to impose a minimum 15% tax rate for multinationals across the EU was stalled, with some countries using it as a bargaining chip in other negotiations.
The French Presidency also opened the debate on including a rule of law conditionality regulation, now in force, which provides for the adoption of measures against any violation in this area that affects the EU budget. On migration, the Schengen Council was created but the Presidency struggled to pass any substantial asylum reforms. The French Presidency also oversaw the conclusion of the Conference on the Future of Europe with a report featuring citizens’ proposals being submitted to the European Parliament on 9 May. Paris gathered support regarding the possible revision of the EU treaties, a necessity according to President Macron, but the aftermath of the Conference remains uncertain.
A war and a presidential election to handle all at the same time
In the context of the war in Ukraine, the French Presidency successfully managed to maintain the Union’s unity and to conclude negotiations on several packages of sanctions against Russia, despite Hungary’s veto on a Russian oil embargo. The war also triggered major breakthroughs regarding EU defence such as delivering lethal weapons to the Ukrainian armed forces through the European Peace Facility. Moreover, at the Versailles Summit, France provided political support for the REPowerEU package, including measures to phase out the EU’s dependency on Russian fossil fuels.
Nonetheless, despite his personal involvement in the Ukrainian war, President Macron was unable to obtain any meaningful concessions such as a ceasefire from Russian President Putin. His willingness to keep the “channel of negotiations” open with the Kremlin as well as his various statements on the need to avoid “humiliating Russia” were not well received by Central and Eastern European countries. Even though the last Council Summit under the French Presidency saw the EU granting candidate status to Ukraine and Moldova, the ambiguous French position triggered distrust among several EU Member States. The French Presidency also failed to overcome Bulgaria’s veto over the accession of North Macedonia and other Balkan countries to the EU. In the end, national preferences could not always be overcome.
Finally, the French Presidential and legislative elections somewhat overshadowed the Presidency, with some critics suggesting that President Macron instrumentalised his role for electoral purposes. The Presidency got off to a strong start, but notably slowed down in the spring, when several members of the French government were busy campaigning. Furthermore, President Macron suffered a blow during the legislative elections in June, with his party losing its majority in Parliament – and an opposition dominated by two Euroskeptic political parties –, somewhat weakening his position as a leader on the EU stage
The Czech Presidency, whose new mandate starts on 1July, will now have to build on the French achievements of past months. With the stalemate in Ukraine and the risk of a looming economic crisis, it will undoubtedly face several major challenges. Its priorities, stated in its political programme, relate mainly to the human, military, economic and energy consequences of the war. They indicate some kind of continuity, but several stakeholders in Brussels are already worried that they might limit progress on important environmental and climate legislation.