For the next six months, France will be running the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, giving President Emmanuel Macron a key role in shaping the future of the bloc in a year that looks set to be yet another highly turbulent and fractious one for the EU.
Macron takes the helm of the EU as French presidential elections loom, and some critics are already accusing him of weaponizing France’s six-month stint presiding over the council to try to boost his reelection hopes.
Other European leaders are bracing themselves for Macron to be hyperactive as he presides over the council, which brings together the heads of state and government of the member states and their ministers, and arguably is the most powerful of the bloc’s institutions and are worried
Macron’s French electoral opponents have denounced him for using the upcoming council role for unfair electioneering, pointing to a recent tour of EU member states during which he pushed not only his plans to reset the course of the whole European bloc but also to burnish his self-appointed role as the champion of democracy against populism, French or otherwise.
French domestic politics was never far from Macron’s mood during his tour, which concluded last month.
While calling on the EU’s 27 member states to aim for “strategic sovereignty” and defense autonomy, critics say he has been advertising his ambitions for the bloc to project himself as a statesman, one who is putting France front and center of the European continent.
Macron declared “the year 2022 must be a turning point for Europe” in his New Year’s Eve address to the French nation, praised the EU’s role during the pandemic and outlined a highly ambitious reform agenda for the bloc. And he vowed that he would use the council’s presidency for the benefit of France. “You can count on my complete commitment to ensure that this period, which comes around every 13 years [for France], is a time of progress for you,” he said.
Unease in Brussels
His unabashed mixing of French electoral politics with his role as the EU Council president is prompting some unease in Brussels and among some the bloc’s national leaders, who worry his campaigning for reelection as French president, and the counter-campaigning by his electoral rivals, could spill over and end up impacting wider EU issues.
“It risks getting very messy and triggering some unintended consequences,” a senior EU official told VOA. “There’s a danger his domestic campaign needs will shape how he behaves as Council president and the EU could suffer collateral damage.” he added.
The EU has a full agenda ahead. Divisive talks over Europe’s debt rules, which limit the public spending of member states, are already underway and are proving explosive with southern members like Italy and Greece wanting the rules to be less restrictive and several frugal northern national governments fiercely opposed.
Arguments over the rule of law already have Brussels and the former communist states of Central Europe at each other’s throats.
And there is a continuing rift over how far the bloc should go toward political integration with Macron championing turning the EU into a United States of Europe and already clearly eager to use the council’s presidency to push hard for much greater integration of the EU, from economic policies to defense arrangements.
Macron and his electoral opponents are already skirmishing over the issue of Europe and French identity.
His opponents say he should have delayed France taking on the Council’s presidency until after the elections. “It’s a mistake. He’s doing it for his own interests, not those of France,” his Conservative rival Valérie Pécresse from Les Républicains party said recently.
Last week, there was a foretaste of how the EU risks being dragged into the French electoral battle with both Macron and far-right presidential candidates Marine Le Pen and Éric Zemmour battling over the hoisting of the EU flag under the Arc de Triomphe, a monument that honors those who fought and died for France during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars.
The hanging of the EU flag, instead of the French tricolor, was meant to mark the start of the French presidency of the Council of the EU but it triggered a domestic political fight. Le Pen denounced Macron for what she said was a “provocation that offends those who fought for France.” Zemmour dubbed it an “outrage.”
Conservative presidential candidate Valerie Pécresse questioned why Macron did not choose to fly France’s national flag next to the EU’s as happened the last time France held the EU presidency in 2008, when Nicolas Sarkozy was French president. Others noted the hoisting of the flag broke a French law stipulating “flying the colors of Europe on monuments is possible as long as it is done alongside French colors.”