Paris, France – With months to go until its presidential election, France took on the rotating presidency of the European Council on January 1.
French President Emmanuel Macron will shape the priorities of the European Union and drive its legislative agenda for the next six months.
He has not yet announced his candidacy for the April election at home, but it is widely expected that he soon will.
Known as a headstrong leader who regularly clashes with far-right Eurosceptics, the 44-year-old likely hopes his temporary title within the bloc will boost his campaign and secure him a second term in office.
In his New Year’s Eve address, Macron pledged to make the French presidency of the EU “a time of progress”, as “2022 must be the year of a European turning point.”
In the French political arena, Macron is clearly identified as the most pro-European figure.
A longtime advocate for further European integration, he was instrumental in the creation of the 800-billion-euro ($909bn) COVID-19 stimulus plan adopted by the European Union in July 2020; for the first time since the birth of the EU in 1957, member states issued debt together.
France will push for new EU legislation on a minimum wage aimed at narrowing the income gap between the bloc’s richer and poorer countries.
The French president also wants a European carbon tax for imported goods to be agreed on to help fight climate change.
Both measures should please the left and green wings of his centrist electorate at home, whose broad support he will need in April.
At the same time, however, under increasing pressure to win over potential far-right voters from Calais to Montpellier, Macron has said he will act to reform the EU’s immigration system.
“Clearly, Macron sees the French presidency of the EU as a chance. He could have postponed it but he didn’t, which angered many in Europe. Because of the election in April, he’s got only three months to act instead of six,” Amandine Crespy, professor of European studies at the Universite Libre de Bruxelles, told Al Jazeera.
“He wants to rally the silent majority in France that is pro-European.”
Eurobarometer surveys, which regularly poll citizens in all 27 EU member states, have suggested renewed support for the bloc since the UK decided to leave in 2016.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted to European citizens the levels of dependency their societies had with one another. And Brexit proved that leaving the EU came at a real cost for citizens and businesses,” said Crespy.
A new momentum for EU reforms
There is a saying in the EU that nothing can be done without France and Germany – the bloc’s two biggest economies – being on the same page.
For the first four years of his term, Macron sometimes expressed his “frustration” with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s lack of ambition for the European project.
But “Frau Nein” (“Mrs No”) – a nickname earned by Merkel during the European debt crisis of 2010-2015 that nearly led to Greece exiting the eurozone – retired in December last year. A new coalition, made of the Social democrats, the Greens and the Liberals, came to power in Berlin with a renewed vision for the continent.
“We may be at the beginning of a turning point in the EU’s history. The words ‘treaty changes’ are no longer taboo in Germany and other capital cities,” said Crespy.
In a recent op-ed, Macron and Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi pleaded for a reform of the EU fiscal rules to “have more room for manoeuvre and enough key spending for the future and to ensure our sovereignty”.
Draghi’s words matter; he is regarded as the man who “saved the euro” back in 2012 when he headed the European Central bank.
“The planets are aligned,” Claude-France Arnould, a former French ambassador to Belgium and now senior adviser at the French Institute of International Relations, told Al Jazeera.
“This is very positive because there is a need to push the EU forward in key areas, such as the green and digital transitions, migration, common defence.”
Boosting European defence
In 2019, Macron declared NATO was “experiencing a brain death”.
At the time, the line sparked outrage in many countries around Europe that rely on NATO and the US’s military might for defence.
But, in a world reshaped by the competition between China and the United States, “more and more leaders in Europe increasingly believe the EU must no longer be dependent”, said Arnould, who also headed the European Defence Agency between 2011 and 2015.
“France has championed the idea of an autonomous European defence for years, consistent with Macron’s idea of a ‘European sovereignty’. But it now goes well beyond that. Green techs, health, space, digital … European leaders know the EU needs to more ‘sovereign’.”
Current US-Russia talks about Europe’s security architecture without the Europeans having a seat at the table can only reinforce that belief.
There is a favourable context for reforms in the EU, and Macron hopes to bank on it when he likely runs for re-election in April.
But with only three months to get his European agenda into motion, time is more than limited.
The possibility of a far-right, anti-EU candidate victory in a highly volatile French presidential election overshadowed by the pandemic is not far-fetched.
This would create a political earthquake both in France and in Europe that would turn Macron’s dreams of a “European turning point” and his political career into a dead end.