Author: Jahangir HUSEYNOV
Over the past two years, the solidarity of European states has gone through severe test from the shock of the Brexit to the coronavirus pandemic, which almost put them at odds with each other and wasted their budgets. Tensions with Russia and China can make the EU to tighten its foreign policy, which is often considered a balancing act between economic interests and human rights.
These problems are forcing the EU member states to enter into an even more intensive dialogue about the benefits of membership and the direction they would like the union to develop in the future.
Interestingly, polls show that France recognises the advantages of the EU membership differently than other member states. For example, 27% of the French respondents consider protection against wars and conflicts as the most important function of the European Union. This is the largest percentage of respondents among the members states. Only 17% (least of all) of them note the economic benefits of EU membership, including access to the single market.
These differences seem to indicate a rift between France and its European partners in their vision of the role and purpose of the EU.
How serious will be the effect of these differences on the French presidency of the EU Council, which started on January 1 and will last until June 30, 2022, given the upcoming presidential elections in France slated for April, 2022? Will Emmanuel Macron be able to satisfy the requests of 70 million voters and 450 million people in Europe at the same time?
The most pro-European
After becoming the president of France, Macron actively began to make statements on issues of European politics and reforms. He ran for president as a strongly pro-European politician: during the 2017 election campaign, his supporters seemed to wave the EU flag as often as they did the national flag—a rare example of solidarity elsewhere in Europe.
In turn, the Europeans, according to polls, unequivocally consider France under Macron one of the two most influential countries on the continent (93%). This is almost equal to the responses coming from Germany (97%) and is significantly ahead of the Netherlands, which ranks third (55%).
European politicians jokingly note that the EU's working language is still English, but the union is increasingly thinking in French. Over the past four years, the EU has gradually become what Macron had been insisting on—a more sovereign and financially integrated bloc.
For example, the €750b-worth EU Reconstruction Fund is a symbol of France's long-standing intention to create financial tools such as EU bonds. But Berlin has resisted calls for Eurobonds for many years, fearing, not without reason, that this will make Germany be held accountable for the expenses of other countries.
In terms of industrial policy, the EU has leaned towards a more interventionist French approach. EU's plans to regulate online commerce and content also bear a strong French influence.
It is Macron’s phrases such as ‘strategic autonomy’, ‘digital sovereignty’ and ‘Europe that protects’ that define much of the political debate in Brussels and many of the European Commission's legislative proposals.
But while there is general agreement that France deserves its influential position, some in Europe feel quite unhappy with France. The EU residents consider France the third most disappointing country after Hungary and Poland, which they accuse of serious violations of European values.
Dissatisfied with Macron's initiatives
It is not surprising given some of the recent political ideas of the French president, especially in external relations. Macron has been widely criticised for his attempts to negotiate with Putin, as well as for his initial veto on EU accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania. Macron's statements about NATO's ‘brain death’ have been poorly received in the Eastern European countries, which are highly dependent on the security guarantees of NATO.
In September 2021, Paris felt the limits of its capacity. Angry at the United States and the Great Britain for pushing it out of the deal on the construction of supply submarines for Australia, France did its best to freeze trade negotiations with Canberra, and also threatened to torpedo a new EU diplomatic format with Washington on trade and technology standards to combat China.
If it was possible to shelve the trade negotiations with Australia, France faced fierce opposition because of its attempts to spoil relations with the United States. As one of the EU’s trade diplomats said, France should not try to impede a process that is "too big to fail."
Many fear that Macron’s slogan ‘Europe First’ will ultimately turn into ‘France First’, especially since Macron sees Europe through the prism of his country's defense industry.
Similar sentiments apply to the French presidency in the EU Council. “Nobody expects the French to be honest brokers during the presidency. This is fine. But there is a limit to what they can get away with," one of the EU officials said.
Promises and plans
France's motto during the EU presidency is Recovery, Power, Belonging. The last word means the strengthening of the Europeans' sense of common belonging to the union.
Macron is promoting the concept of EU's ‘strategic autonomy’, which he believes will enable the 27-nation union to better resist Chinese competition, Russian threats, making it a more equal partner of the United States. Macron proposed to create an ‘emergency border support mechanism’ in cooperation with Frontex (the EU border agency), which will allow, if necessary, to quickly deploy military forces and equipment on the border. The idea received wide support after the emigration conflict on the border of Poland with Belarus. The French president also wants to revise the Schengen system, which allows Europeans to cross borders without checks.
The French also promise to support European farmers by restricting food imports from countries that have less stringent regulations in terms of the environment, labour, and chemicals.
The EU also needs to revisit its stringent rules on budget deficit, Macron believes, as governments spend large sums of money to save their economies from the impact of COVID-19 restrictions. France will push for a "rethinking" of laws, which require, inter alia, the budget deficit to remain below three percent of GDP.
The new EU Council President's plans include a security summit in March to revitalize joint European military exercises and develop a common defense industry; measures to transform Europe into a ‘digital power’; strengthening the external borders of the Union, as Europe faces immigration pressure that it cannot control; holding a Euro-African summit in February to restore relations and propose a new course for Africa.
Elections in France
Macron's ability to prove to his fellow citizens that the EU benefits each of them personally will be key to his chances during the upcoming elections. After all, he is the most pro-European politician and the link between his scattered electorate.
The French, who are among the most powerful Eurosceptics in Europe along with Greeks, recent poll shows, have long believed that the single European market has deprived them of their jobs and lowered their wages with the entry of Eastern European workers into the labour market.
According to the latest Eurobarometer poll, only 36% of French people trust the EU. This is the lowest figure in the union. The French do not want to leave the EU, but their faith in the European project and its ability to make a positive contribution to the lives of French citizens is diminishing.
It would seem that the EU presidency could pose a certain electoral danger for Macron, especially if he has to make decisions that undermine traditional French bastions such as industry and agriculture.
But Macron seems determined to avoid these political pitfalls because he has invested so much in recent years in shaping an EU trade policy that is not contradictory to the French interests. After the withdrawal of the UK, who supported the ideas of free market, France became committed to a more defensive EU trade strategy. In 2020, Macron vetoed the trade agreement of the EU with the South American bloc MERCOSUR, showing… environmental problems in South American countries, primarily the reduction of forest areas, as the main cause of rejection.
In the autumn of last year, Paris secretly and quite cynically notified their European colleagues that any talks on trade agreements before the April elections are irrelevant because of the sharply negative public attitude towards them in France. “We explained in Brussels that it was in their interest to pause the current deals for a while. If France has a different president, then Paris may not agree to any free trade deal at all," said a French official in his interview with Politico.
It is not clear how many of Macron's ideas will translate into concrete European politics. Some of his most attractive initiatives are more rhetoric than reality. Others have undergone significant changes.
Macron’s goal to create an ambitious European Defense Fund failed during budget negotiations in 2020. The progress on holding a conference on the future of Europe that Macron talks about enthusiastically is very slowly and seems to be less radical than he hoped.
Complexity of Emmanuel Macron's stance is that he plans to govern Europe not only during the short period of France’s presidency in the EU Council. His ambitions are much higher, especially after the departure of Angela Merkel.
But political influence needs strengthening and cementing. The French president understands this. That is why he began to actively create bilateral alliances within the EU, not only with its traditional friendly partners such as Italy, with which France signed a bilateral cooperation pact last November, the so-called Quirinal Treaty, but also with countries France has no mutual understanding. For example, Hungary.
Visiting Budapest in December, Macron held talks with nationalist and Eurosceptic prime minister Viktor Orban, who is also known for his support for far-right French politicians such as Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour. Underlining the political differences between the leaderships of the two countries, Macron noted "a common desire to work together" for the sake of a united Europe. “We are political opponents and European partners,” the Hungarian politician answered him.
Yet Germany, albeit without Merkel, remains the leading country in Europe. Macron first of all needs to find a common language with the new German chancellor Olaf Scholz and his coalition government. It is in the alliance with Germany that Macron has a chance to achieve something at the European and global levels.
But first, of course, he has to win the elections in France.