Paris Perspective

Paris Perspective #22 : France, Europe and the EU presidency - Yves Bertoncini

Audio 22:46
A picture taken on January 1, 2022 shows the European Union flag under the Arc de Triomphe, on the Place de l'Etoile in Paris to mark the start of France's 6-month rotating presidency of the EU.
A picture taken on January 1, 2022 shows the European Union flag under the Arc de Triomphe, on the Place de l'Etoile in Paris to mark the start of France's 6-month rotating presidency of the EU. AFP - ALAIN JOCARD

France has taken over the presidency of the Council of the European Union for the first time in 13 years. Under a banner of "relaunch, strength, belonging", President Emmanuel Macron will have to find common ground across the 27 member states on several key issues. Paris Perspective looks at what France will put on the table between now and the end of June.

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France took over the revolving presidency on 1 January with a great deal of fanfare by the Macron administration and discussion in the French media.

As a founding member of the European Union, France could be forgiven for taking the 2022 chairmanship of the bloc with resolve, as Paris comes to the table with a packed agenda, ranging from a plan for a common policy on migration and a strategy to deal with sabre-rattling Russia.

It also aims to regulate digital platforms and develop a common EU approach to post-pandemic economic recovery.

All of this provides a showcase for Macron's leadership in an election year. 

Finding consensus among a divided Europe is key to the success of France's six-month mandate.

After Germany's Angela Merkel stepped down from her role as chancellor and the EU's de facto leader after 16 years in office, the limelight is now set on Macron to step up to the plate. 

But can the French President match Merkel's talent for compromise and concession on an EU level, while avoiding potential criticism for using the EU presidency for national political gain?  

"First of all ... this presidency in an electoral context is detrimental for Europe," says Yves Bertoncini, president of the Movement-Européen France and former director of the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris.

"It should have been avoided ... but Macron decided to maintain [the election] calendar."

According to Bertoncini, holding the EU presidency in an election year means Macron will become a target when it comes to European affairs.

"Even if he does positive things, he will be negatively targeted by his opponents." 

How is France's presidency of the EU viewed from the UK?

Finding an elusive consensus on migration 

Even so, the French presidency of the European Union is an opportunity for France to set the agenda on crucial issues such as migration, an issue that Paris has put at the top of its agenda with a view to getting eastern European and Mediterranean countries on board with a common policy.

Many of the so-called "front line states" who bore the brunt of the 2015 migration tsunami from the Middle East and North Africa feel abandoned by Brussels, and have expressed their anger at the ballot box, giving rise to populist, anti-EU administrations. 

Ahead of 1 January, Macron met with Hungary's ultra-nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Budapest to test the temperature with his political opponent. So, can the EU under France's guidance find common ground with Orban on migration?

For Bertoncini, the main issue is one of perception: "For some Europeans, migrants are victims – to be backed and to be welcomed. Not all of them, but some of them.

"For Orban and some other leaders, migrants are threats. So as long as you have such a divide in the perception of the migrants, it's very difficult to find a common ground except on the fact that you need to control the external borders of the Schengen area," he says.

"So on this at least you can have consensus in Europe, including between Macron and Orban.

"However, once you take back control of the flow of migration and accept the migrants on Europe soil, the divide still remains. 

"The new coalition in Germany is open to migration. Orban remains very opposed, because for him, it's a political trick. The reality is that no migrants want to settle in Hungary, but it's in his interest is to show that there might be an invasion and I'm afraid that France is caught in the middle."

What are France's intentions in hosting an EU-Africa summit?

Coordinated European defence strategy

Another concern at the top of France's EU to-do list is European defence as the spectre of a Russian invasion of Ukraine – and a direct confrontation with the West – looms large over the geopolitical landscape. 

The last time France held the rotating EU presidency in 2008, the agenda was dominated by relations with Russia over its intervention in the Georgian province of South Ossetia and subsequent conflict with Tblisi.

With all the preparation France has put into setting the programme during its tenure of the presidency, is there a possibility the schedule could be derailed by Moscow's machinations?

Bertoncini says that even if you have a consistent, water-tight programme set for the EU presidency, realpolitik could push everything in another direction. 

"It's difficult to predict. For Sarkozy back in 2008 it was a presidency struck by crisis – the global economic and financial collapse, the invasion of Georgia plus the constitutional 'No' in a referendum in Ireland – so you never know exactly what might happen."

To date, Macron has had to face the Covid-19 pandemic crisis. If Russian aggression comes to the fore in the coming weeks, he will also have to face that too and find an EU common stance against Moscow, in tandem with the United States.

Bertoncini points out that a common European defence strategy has been a holy grail in France in past four decades. This policy even goes back as far back as the time of General De Gaulle. 

"Macron has made the right moves recently to show that we need to try and have a more conceptual European approach [to common defence], but with the Americans – even more precisely with Nato."

A Nato summit is set to be organised at the end of this spring. This means that as France concludes its presidency of the EU, Macron will be able to say that he has at least made the effort. 

Watch full video here

Written, produced and presented by David Coffey.

Recorded and edited by Vincent Pora and Erwan Rome.

Full Interview: France, Europe and the EU presidency - Yves Bertoncini

Yves Bertoncini is president of the Movement-Européen France and former director of the Jacques Delors Institute in Paris.

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