View from Brussels: France’s big plans for the EU
Image credit: EU Council
France takes over the six-month-long presidency of the EU Council in January. It will give Paris a chance to steer Brussels’ policies further towards a direction of its choosing, with some notable decisions due to be brokered under its watch.
“I am here to talk to you about Europe. ‘Again?!’ some will say. They will have to get used to it, because I will continue to do so,” French President Emmanuel Macron said during a speech earlier in December.
Macron is firmly on the campaign trail, preparing for mid-April’s presidential elections, where he will seek another five-year term. He is likely to face a conservative or perhaps even far-right candidate in a second-round runoff.
France’s leading role within the EU and the ‘Frenchification’ of how Brussels does business is a foundation stone of Macron’s re-election effort, given that much of his first mandate always had one eye on European policies.
Slovenia will hand over the reins of the rotating EU presidency at the end of this month to France, giving Macron a shop window to display many of his big ideas.
For smaller countries, the EU presidency is normally just a six-month-long period in which to boost the tourism sector - by advertising the culture and beauty spots of the country - and to prove to the other 26 member states they are at least competent enough to chair meetings.
Larger countries can wring a bit more out of their time in charge. Germany, for example, used its stint last year to help guide the pandemic recovery effort in a direction that suited Berlin. France will attempt to do the same.
Of course, if Macron is beaten in April’s poll, it will be a big disrupting factor for EU policy-making too. A new government would take time to get up to speed and there are plenty of pieces of legislation that need a guiding hand in the first half of 2022.
The lion’s share of legislative attention next year will be on the big tranche of environmental policies that the EU’s executive branch proposed in the summer. Their main objective is to bring the Union’s collective greenhouse gas emissions down dramatically.
In the EU rule-making process, the Commission proposes something and then the European Parliament and Council separately broker their positions on the legislation. When ready, they all meet behind closed doors to hash out a compromise before it becomes actual law.
The first half of 2022 will be dedicated to the middle part of that procedure. MEPs will be writing reports on issues like renewable energy targets, updates to the emissions trading scheme and a new carbon border tax.
EU ministers will be meeting in various formats to do the same. It is here that France will chair meetings, take the temperature of opinion and seek new mandates to either be more ambitious or more disruptive.
The process has already begun. This week, environmental ministers met and discussed a number of topics. One of the most controversial is the Commission’s plan to extend carbon pricing to the road transport and buildings sectors.
Member states are split on that issue. Poorer countries are dead-set against it, while the likes of Germany and the Netherlands want to proceed quickly.
France is keeping its cards close to the chest. Macron will not want a resurgence of the gilets jaunes movement, an anti-government protest group that was in part sparked by an increase in fuel costs a number of years ago.
The policy that France would most like to usher through the grinder quickly is the carbon border tax, as it has long been a French government ambition to implement something similar at EU level.
But it is a contentious plan. Completely new, liable to be contested by trading partners like China and Russia, and very complex, the carbon border tax will need a lot more work before it becomes a reality.
French diplomats are bullish about the chances of at least the Council settling on their position before the end of their presidency shift, while others are far more pessimistic about its chances of even seeing the light of day at all.
There are more chances of success for France when it comes to digital policies. The European Parliament and Council have both nearly completed their separate work on two pieces of legislation that will govern much of the online space.
The Digital Markets Act (DMA) and Digital Services Act (DSA) will set rules for Big Tech and aim to protect the fundamental rights of consumers online. Both issues are close to France’s heart, as Paris wants the EU to be a rule-maker, not a rule-taker.
Trilateral talks might begin in January in that case. Guiding a final agreement over the line would be a big win for France, as it would be able to trumpet the everyday benefits of the deal, such as removing illegal and harmful content at a quicker rate.
France will also be on the ground floor as the EU decides how best to implement an OECD agreement on minimum tax levels. That will be no easy feat either.
France’s six months will also be another chance for Paris to implement its vision for EU unity on the big Brussels machine, whether that is retooling energy policy more towards nuclear power or making sure big domestic industries are well looked after.
Ensuring that the defence sector is well looked after will be another item on the wishlist of the French government heading into its presidency, as will making the most of EU programmes that allow large-scale public investment.
These so-called IPCEI projects allow a small group of countries to band together and pump millions of euros into things like hydrogen, batteries and semiconductors, avoiding the more stringent state aid rules that the EU sets.
France has championed these kinds of cross-border cooperation deals and will push for more when it is in the limelight.
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