France takes over the EU Presidency: what it means

Since January 1st 2022, France has held the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. At a time when the European flag under the Arc de Triomphe has generated controversy, Europe is a burning topic. But what does it mean for the country, as well as for the whole EU?

The TLDR News EU channel (independent and mostly publicly funded online) focuses here on the impact of the French Presidency of the Council of Europe, President Emmanuel Macron’s plans and its potential consequences for France and for Europe.

The video starts by explaining the difference between the Presidency of the Council of the European Union and the Presidency of the European Council. The words are similar but they refer to two different things. The European Council, with a fixed presidency, brings together the 27 heads of state of the EU member states. The Council of the European Union changes presidency every 6 months: France is now at its helm until the end of June 2022.
Click here to better understand the difference between the Council of the EU and the European Council

The Council of the EU is not a single group but rather several ‘councils’ of ministers responsible for specific topics. For example: the Foreign Affairs Council brings together the foreign ministers, the Education Council brings together the education ministers, etc. Presiding over the Council of the EU means mainly two things: 1. Planning and chairing each meeting (the thematic councils), 2. Representing the Council of the EU in the other European institutions. This may sound technical at first, but in fact the Presidency has some power to influence the agendas of these meetings.

Among Emmanuel Macron’s priorities for the French presidency, there is a desire for reform on two key points: economic policy and border policy.

As far as economic policy is concerned, it is mainly a question of the EU’s budgetary framework. Currently, according to the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, to join the eurozone, a country must meet 4 main criteria (and continue to do so under penalty of sanctions). The most restrictive of these criteria is the fiscal criterion. It states that the budget of a Member State (both Eurozone and non-Eurozone) must not exceed 3% of its GDP* and the public debt must be less than 60% of its GDP.

*A quick reminder: what is GDP? It is an economic indicator that gives an order of magnitude to the total wealth produced annually by a country (its population, its companies, its institutions). It is especially useful for measuring a country’s economic activity and growth.

So basically: a euro member country is supposed to be indebted to a maximum of 60% of its produced wealth.

In 2020, 13 EU Member States did not meet this last criterion (including – gasp! – France). Based on the last quarter of 2021, 17 countries are outside the criteria or are on the verge of being so (the Covid-19 crisis has largely contributed to this). As for the criterion of a budget of less than 3% of GDP, only two EU member states respect it according to the 2020 figures. Hence the French President’s desire to update these rules.

On the border policy side, Macron calls for a comprehensive reform of the Schengen area. While Schengen has many positive consequences, some limitations have emerged in recent years and led to its temporary suspension (terrorism, migration, Covid).
What is the Schengen Area? Click here to find out more

France is one of the states most in favour of extending the Member States’ power over border controls. Currently, this is allowed by the EU in case of a serious threat to public policy or internal security, but only as a last resort and for relatively limited periods. In 2017, following the terrorist attacks, France and Germany asked to double this period of ‘exceptional circumstances’ to 4 years. The proposal was rejected at the time.

Today, France is therefore seeking to reform the Schengen area, based on the model of the euro zone. In particular, it would like to see:

  • political coordination between the different countries, with a political steering committee and regular meetings between ministers from the different countries
  • the establishment of an emergency border support mechanism based on Frontex, the EU’s border agency.

This mechanism would facilitate the deployment of police forces and equipment throughout the Schengen area to resolve complex situations that threaten European stability (particularly with regard to the issue of migration).

Finally, Emmanuel Macron highlighted the need for strategic autonomy for the European Union. In question: Europe’s dependence on NATO (roughly speaking, the alliance between Europe and North America – USA and Canada), weakened in particular by Donald Trump’s presidency. According to the French President’s vision, Europe should be independent when it comes to its own security issues, with its own strategic autonomy without the US.

But beyond these potential policies, what makes the French presidency particularly interesting is its timing. With the French presidential elections coming up in April, the EU Council presidency is therefore not just a formality for President Macron. The choices he makes could have an influence on the election – especially in a context where he is the most pro-European of the declared presidential candidates.

And above all, if Macron were to lose the election, it would mean that the person at the head of the Council of Europe would also change until the end of June 2022, with possible consequences.

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