Emmanuel Macron wants the European Union to be defined by one thing and one thing only: power. The French president said so himself last Thursday, when he presented the major European priorities that France will carry during its six-month presidency of the Council of the EU from 1 January 2022.
Macron’s assertive tone over the two-hour press conference reflected his ambition to elevate “European sovereignty” as the only means for the continent to come to grips with an autocratic China and a United States whose focus has moved away from Europe.
The French president’s determination to transform the bloc into a political powerhouse is most obvious in the fields of defence and migration. A long-standing advocate of “strategic autonomy” for Europe, he outlined plans for a security summit in March to galvanise joint European military exercises and development of a shared defence industry.
As the migration issue continues to divide the 27 EU member states – to say nothing of France itself – the French presidency also promises to revolve around a reform of the Schengen area of free movement of goods and people with plans to tighten the union’s external borders.
The cascade of objectives in Macron’s speech also included a Euro-African meeting in February to “rebuild” relations and offer a “new deal” for Africa; measures to turn Europe into “a digital power”; the creation of a six-month “European civic service” for citizens under 25; and promotion of growth of strong European industries in technology sectors such as semiconductors, batteries for electric vehicles, hydrogen fuel, and cloud computing.
The French leader, who has yet to officially announce that he will be seeking a second term, is holding to a vision of Europe led by him, especially after the retirement of former German chancellor Angela Merkel, long seen as the de facto EU leader.
Ahead of the French presidential election, which is set to interrupt France’s presidency of the Council of the EU between 10 and 24 April, Macron’s ambition to act as Europe’s leader could appeal to centre-right voters.
But it is migration that has become the central focus of campaign speeches in France, including far-right candidates Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour and conservative Les Républicains candidate Valérie Pécresse, all of whom like to define the incumbent president as a “caméléon sans conviction” (a half-hearted chameleon).
In a sense, they aren’t wrong. We’ve indeed become accustomed to Macron’s use of his pro-EU stance as leverage for his domestic and international policy ambitions, sometimes in opposing ways. However, the French presidency of the Council of the EU offers him a unique opportunity to align both strategically.
As we brace for an even more assertive version of the French president in the months to come, our readers will be forgiven for thinking that when Macron states that Europe’s focus should be on “relaunch, power and belonging”, he’s talking as much about the EU as it is about France.