On January 1, 2022, France took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union, which rotates every six months among the 27 EU member states. Much of the job involves routine tasks: organizing and chairing ministerial meetings, brokering compromises, and ensuring the coherence and continuity of the European decision-making process. In addition, countries that hold the EU presidency can use their term to provide impulses and set their own policy initiatives, albeit to a limited extent.

The EU presidency under French leadership is notable for three reasons: First, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, has been one for bold ideas on Europe – and the EU presidency allows him to expand on them. Second, as France takes over the Council presidency, Europe is caught in another pandemic surge that puts further pressure on EU members’ already battered health infrastructures and their economies. Finally, the French electorate is going to the polls in April to elect a new French president. The upcoming election campaign will cast a shadow over the EU presidency and effectively cuts Macron’s time for European action in half.

Macron places Europe’s sovereignty at the center of the EU presidency

When it comes to Europe’s future, the French president is known for his visions and his ambition. Macron had already outlined in his famous Sorbonne speech in 2017 the kind of Europe he wants: Europe should protect its citizens and be powerful enough to act independently on the international stage. After a period of muddling-through and short-term crisis management in Europe, his “leitmotiv” of European sovereignty has become the reference point for the debate on the future of the EU – equally for those who embrace and those who rail against it.

Macron has taken up his idea of a more sovereign Europe again for France’s EU presidency: “We must move from a Europe of cooperation within our border to a powerful Europe in the world, fully sovereign, free to make its own choices and master of its destiny,” he said on December 9, 2021, during his presentation of France’s plans. He called on the EU to assert itself as a strategic and economic power by securing its external borders and controlling migration, by deepening defense cooperation, and by investing in high-tech industries.

With a view to the migration conflict between Poland and Belarus, Macron announced that France would propose the establishment of a more permanent rapid response system to secure Europe’s external frontiers. Paris also wants to inject momentum into the reform of the EU asylum policy. More importantly, the border-free Schengen area should be transformed and equipped with an independent political structure. The focus on migration and border issues during France’s EU presidency does not come as a surprise, as the topic is also at the core of the upcoming election campaign of the French presidency.

According to Macron, a sovereign Europe would also speak with one voice as much as possible in foreign and security policy and would make progress on defense policy. This includes more joint exercises and adopting the “Strategic Compass” at the European summit in March. He called for a European defense policy inventory that would list threats and details of hostile organizations. In the run-up to France’s EU presidency, he also highlighted the need to help stabilize the EU’s neighborhood, particularly in Africa and the Western Balkans.

A sovereign Europe would also be a “digital power” that defines the rules for the digital world. To this end, France announced that the EU should support tech start-ups and work towards creating European digital champions. During the French presidency, Macron wants to reach an agreement on the Digital Markets Act (DMA), which aims to ensure fair competition and prevent excessive dominance by large platforms such as Google or Amazon, and on the Digital Services Act (DSA), which would control hate speech and make digital companies responsible for the content they publish and the products they sell. Pushing through two of the biggest – and most heavily-lobbied – legislative initiatives that are currently discussed in the EU in less than six months is an ambitious task.

A new economic model for Europe?

On economic policy, Macron emphasizes that EU member states need to act together to promote strong European industries in technology such as semiconductors, batteries for electric vehicles, space technology, hydrogen fuel, and cloud computing, as well as in health and in creative industries. “We have to act as Europeans” and build “real technological sovereignty in Europe,” he said in his December 9 speech. To this end, Macron plans to call an additional summit of European leaders in early March to discuss “a new European model of growth and investment.”

Macron and his government have in the past spent some time explaining how Europe’s deficit and debt rules are no longer up to the tasks of confronting climate change and the need to invest in new technologies. Once the pandemic-related suspension of the fiscal rules expires, member states cannot go back to the old rules “as if nothing has happened,” according to Macron. He wants to launch a discussion during his EU presidency on exempting strategic or green investment from the rules or raising the overall EU budget.

And France is not alone in this: In fall 2021, the European Commission relaunched its review of the EU’s economic governance framework that it started before the pandemic. Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi again urged the EU in December 2021 to confront the inevitable reform of fiscal rules to make them fit for the EU’s current challenges. And Germany’s new government is open to developing the European fiscal rules further to make them easier to apply and more transparent. This is linked to the goals of securing growth and debt sustainability and promoting sustainable investment, which will give Germany more room to play a constructive role in the upcoming reform debates in Europe.

Without provoking a show-down with fiscally more conservative EU member states, France wants to use the EU presidency to keep the current momentum for economic policy reform going. It is obvious, though, that particularly the debate on the EU’s future fiscal framework and financing investment in the EU will continue beyond France’s EU term.

The third pillar of France’s presidency agenda includes green policies. A priority for Macron is the introduction of a border adjustment tax (CBAM), which the Commission presented two years ago as part of the Green Deal. This would burden energy-intensive imports from countries that have not yet installed systematic CO2 pricing similar to the EU. In such countries, companies can produce more cheaply, which in France’s view poses a threat to the competitiveness of European industries.

The first issue that the French EU presidency will have to deal with is the so-called taxonomy, a set of rules to define what will constitute a green investment in the future. Particularly the question whether nuclear power and gas will be considered “sustainable” is hotly debated among EU member states and could be the first litmus test for the new German government.

France holds the EU presidency at an inconvenient moment

The EU heads of state and governments meet at least twice for their European Council: once in the middle and once at the end of a six-month presidency. Macron will need results early on –in time for the French presidential elections in April. The summit on March 24-25, 2022, will therefore be the crucial reference point for a stocktaking of how ambitious the French EU presidency is going to be.

France is a eurosceptic EU member state (see also our eupinions survey data). Macron is the only French politician among the likely presidential candidates who is openly committed to further European integration. It will not be easy for him to stand up to his rivals’ expected attacks on migration and common EU policies in the upcoming election. The EU presidency will be a tricky balancing act for Macron – and it is unclear whether Europe will hurt him or help him in the end.