PARIS (AFP) – France takes over the rotating presidency of the European Union (EU) yesterday, affording President Emmanuel Macron the chance to pose as the EU’s de facto leader in the run-up to national elections in April.
The 44-year-old has never made any secret of his ambitions to be the motor for further European integration, serving over the last four years as a dynamic sidekick to the more steady German chancellor Angela Merkel in Europe’s power couple.
With Merkel now retired and the timely gift of the rotating presidency of the EU Council from January 1, Macron has announced an ambitious agenda for the 27-member bloc that could also serve his domestic campaign for re-election.
“The year 2022 must be a turning point for Europe,” he said in a New Year’s Eve national address that hailed the EU’s role during the COVID-19 crisis.
Referring to the French presidency, he vowed that “you can count on my complete commitment to ensure that this period, which comes around every 13 years, is a time of progress for you”.
The centrist, who made his Europhile views a key part of his political campaign when winning the presidency in 2017, is hoping it will again serve him in elections scheduled for April 10 and 24.
“The EU presidency gives him a welcome platform to put his European record to the forefront and differentiate himself from his rivals and bring new proposals, new ideas to the table,” said expert at the Marc-Bloch think-tank in Berlin Claire Demesmay.
Strutting on the international stage has also long been a popular move for any French president.
“The French like nothing more than the image or impression of France being ‘at the controls’,” said former French diplomat at the French mission to the EU Pierre Sellal.
To mark the start of the six-month presidency, France illuminated historic buildings across the country including the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe in the blue of the EU flag on New Year’s Eve.
Other observers have noted that the French logo for the presidency includes the letters U and E for “Union Europeene” with a grey arrow in the middle that appears to create another letter – a sideways M for Macron.
Each European country gets a chance at holding the rotating presidency of the Council, which gives the member state an opportunity to set the official agenda for fellow leaders in the bloc – within limits – and organise meetings of ministers.
But although the first French presidency since 2008 offers opportunities for Macron, it is also seen by observers as holding risks.
His agenda to make Europe “powerful” – in defence, technology or its own border security – risks being overshadowed in the short term by the accelerating COVID-19 health crisis.
Director Sebastien Maillard of the Jacques Delors Institute, a pro-EU think-tank based in Paris, said Macron will also face pressure to deliver after having ramped up expectations.
“He can’t get to the first round (of the presidential election) on April 10 without having obtained some results from the European presidency,” Maillard said. “That’s the challenge for him, but it can also be a real opportunity.”
European leaders are set to meet in Paris on March 10-11, which could be a chance for them to agree on a major reform of the bloc’s budget rules.