The presidency of the Council of the European Union passes to a new Member State every 6 months; the Slovenian presidency is currently winding down, with celebrations held in Schuman Square in Brussels at the start of December. The French are due to helm the Council for the first half of 2022, and they set out their plans at a meeting of the Council of Ministers in early November.
This is the first time that France is taking up the presidency since the Lisbon Treaty came into force, but will be the thirteenth French presidency overall. Prior to this statement, the French had already signalled that they had a long list of things to achieve in their 6-month term, including: regulation of digital tech giants; the green deal; advancing the directive on minimum wage in Europe; and the promotion of multilingualism.
In the case of promoting multilingualism and reducing the importance of English as the de facto lingua franca, the French Secretary of State for Tourism, French abroad and Francophone countries mentioned that this would be a priority in March 2021. It will be interesting to see how much they can achieve in this regard in their 6 months of presidency.
Trade is a particularly important area, both for Macron at home, and for the EU at large. Macron has been instrumental in pushing an offensive EU trade policy by developing a level playing field at the EU level. In line with this anti-free trade policy, France have announced that their first priority in trade is to make a deal on a carbon border levy, which would impose penalties on goods imported into the EU from third countries that have lower ecological standards. In terms of farming, the French are also planning to propose restricting food imported from third countries with lower standards concerning labour, chemicals and the environment.
One complication for the French at this point is that there are elections in France for President Macron’s job in the middle of their EU Council presidency, so the emphasis on certain EU policy priorities could change halfway through if the French government changes significantly.
Some EU countries that follow more of a free-trade policy have already complained that there is unlikely to be any progress made in trade deals with Chile and New Zealand under the French presidency due to the impact this could have on Macron’s chances of re-election. France’s Europe Minister Clement Beaune denied that this was the case. An official from the trade minister’s cabinet in France remarked that the newly re-oriented EU trade policy is in line with French ideas. He also argued that the French approach is generally a more sustainable policy.
French officials have also argued that slowing down the conclusion of trade deals before the French elections take place is, however, also in the EU’s interest, as the goals and priorities of the French presidency could change completely if Macron is not re-elected.
Health is obviously a very topical issue at the moment; incoming French officials have announced that they will organise multiple conferences on various aspects of health care, for example a conference on the resilience of health systems, the organisation of health systems and the way healthcare is provided to citizens on 18 January 2022. They are also planning an event in Lyon on 11 February 2022 with the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs in order to have a common reflection on the way to strengthen and improve global health. French officials have suggested that these conferences will be a good way to get an open debate and exchange best practices in these areas, as the topics won’t be covered in legislative files during the 6-month presidency.
As things stand, it is important to note that the French presidency only lasts for 6 months, and they have already laid out a number of complicated goals for that time. The time limit itself could call into question the durability of any long-term changes, never mind the potential upending of the entire presidency priorities in the event that a new French President is elected to replace Macron. Time will tell how much the French are able to achieve.