October 2021

By Étienne Bodard and Lucie Gonçalves

From January until June 2022, France will follow in the footsteps of Slovenia and hold the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union (EU Council). A founding member of the Union and its second largest economy, France has ambitious plans to use its six months-term to push the EU forward in several key areas, from climate change to security. Yet, the French presidency will have to deal with intra-EU friction and with lingering turbulences in transatlantic relations. To make matters worse, the French presidential election is slated to take place in April 2022, which will divert precious attention and resources away from Brussels, and possibly derail President Macron's administration priorities in case a new tenant settles in the Elysée Palace in May.

An ambitious agenda

Starting in January 2022, France intends to use its six months in the role to push the EU’s legislative agenda forward in three key areas, as well as to promote initiatives that build “tomorrow’s Europe.” On the legislative side of things, climate change is the first French priority. Under its presidency, France intends to obtain a political agreement a new carbon border adjustment mechanism, a key component of the "Fit for 55" climate package presented by the European Commission this summer. In addition to having to get member states to agree on the measure, the EU will also have to make the measure acceptable to its foreign trading partners. It is important to remember that the EU’s previous attempt to set up a carbon border adjustment mechanism for the aviation sector triggered a backlash from countries including China, India, Japan, Russia and the United States, which led to the withdrawal of the measure by the EU.

Beside climate, the digital transition and social rights will be the other two legislative priorities of the French Council presidency. On digital, the EU is struggling to find a balance between regulation and innovation as it seeks to put guardrails on sectors dominated by foreign players. The EU’s major piece of legislation in this space, the General Data Protection Regulation, has had mixed results at best, even as European regulators look to tackle artificial intelligence. On social rights, the French presidency intends to focus its efforts on the minimum wage directive, the protection of online platform workers’ rights, and the sustainable governance of companies.

Last but not least, France intends to promote initiatives that build “tomorrow’s Europe.” On a surface level, this means that the French Council presidency will be very supportive of the Conference on the Future of Europe, a gathering meant to “offer citizens a central role in shaping the future of the EU.” However, there is also an expectation that the French will use their term to push for closer defense ties between EU member states. While the term of “strategic autonomy” has become something of a lightning rod, the idea that Europeans need to shoulder more of the burden of their own defense has some supporters beyond Paris.

Domestic hurdles and internal divisions

France’s ambitious agenda will have to contend with the timing of the 2022 French presidential elections. It’s likely that Macron and his team will spend much of April and possibly the weeks or even months running up to it, focusing on the campaign. This is not all bad news for the French Council presidency, as Macron is likely to use his increased visibility on the European scene to further burnish his statesman credentials domestically. However, the French elections are likely to be contested, and most, if not all, candidates likely to snatch the top job from Macron tend to be far more skeptical of the EU than he is. Thus, the risk of a disruption of the French presidency come May can’t be totally excluded.

Beyond French borders, Merkel’s departure is likely to temporarily weaken Germany’s voice in EU Council summits. While that will probably strengthen France’s hand, it does not mean Paris will have free rein to push its priorities through. On trade, a broad cross-section of member states is generally suspicious of what they view as France’s protectionist tendencies. And on the even more sensitive topic of security, a majority of EU countries still see the push for more European defense cooperation as a veiled French attack on NATO. Finally, it’s hard to understate the importance of the recent decision by the highest court in Poland arguing that Polish law supersedes EU law. This “nuclear strike on the EU legal order” means that a devastating “Polexit” is no longer unthinkable. Working to prevent such an outcome could completely take over France’s presidency. 

Geopolitical turbulences

Finally, the French presidency will take place in a tense geopolitical context. For years, the EU has struggled to position itself clearly in the intensifying competition between the United States and China. With 1.5 million French citizens living in the Indo-Pacific, France was one of the countries pushing the EU to get more involved in the region. The way in which the AUKUS alliance was announced, on the same week the EU released its own Indo-Pacific strategy, will surely diminish France’s willingness to coordinate its, and to some extent the EU’s, efforts in the region with the United States. Paris has already halted talks for an EU-Australia free trade deal.

That’s not to say that French resentment is omnipotent. Paris’ efforts to postpone the first gathering of the United States-European Union Trade and Technology Council were unsuccessful. Yet the botched withdrawal from Afghanistan, and now the exclusion of an EU member state from a key security initiative in the world’s most strategic region, have given France an opportunity to nudge its EU partners on the idea of European defense. In fact, in a joint statement issued by Paris and Washington in September, the Biden administration itself recognized “the importance of a stronger and more capable European defense.” However, Paris’ room for maneuver remains relatively narrow as many EU member states still consider that NATO is the only legitimate security provider in Europe.

France has high hopes for its six months at the head of the Council of European Union. Its ambitious agenda covers issues ranging from climate change, to tech and digital issues, to European security. Macron’s consistent pro-European positioning, Germany’s political transition, and recent missteps by the Biden administration may offer Paris the opportunity to make some progress on some of these items. However, the French presidential election’s timing, several EU member states’ skepticism toward France’s decision-making on trade, and the widespread view that the United States is Europe’s only real security guarantor are likely to severely constrain Paris’ ability to make substantial on all, or even on most, of the priorities in its ambitious agenda.