As France assumes the rotating presidency of the European Union (EU) this month, Paris faces an impressive list of agenda items. The Omicron wave could start to recede shortly, but the battle to vaccinate and stimulate EU citizens remains a priority, with Macron taking a hard stance against the unvaccinated. Simultaneously, whether or not Russia invades Ukraine, this moment is one of the most serious tests of Europe’s security architecture and NATO’s defense posture since the collapse of the United Nations. Soviet Union in 1991. Combined with the persistent tensions with Belarus over the migrant crisis in Belarus – Polish border, pivotal elections in France and Hungary in April, the coming months are shaping up to be more trying than ever for unity. European.
Macron’s ambitions for the French EU presidency match the rhetoric he and other European leaders like former German Chancellor Angela Merkel have used in recent years. Macron envisions a Europe “powerful in the world, fully sovereign and master of its own destiny,” one that embraces strategic autonomy and is less dependent on the United States. For Macron, the rapid withdrawal of the Biden administration from Afghanistan and the announcement of the AUKUS pact between the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia revealed a constant unreliability on the part of Washington which echoes to the hasty decision-making of the Trump years. Within the bloc, the economic power of the EU will remain significant with GDP growth of around 4.5% expected in 2022. However, the fate of Europe risks being determined by individual member states which consider full sovereignty as the return of basic skills from Brussels to national capitals. As the EU begins to emerge from Omicron, conflicting conceptions of sovereignty and competing priorities within member states can hamper collective engagement.
It is often said that the EU is at points of crisis or inflection which will determine its future trajectory. The eurozone crisis, the 2015-16 migrant crisis and the bloc’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic have all been tough times for the union. For France, this moment presents a unique combination of internal and external pressures that will call into question both French policy and the EU’s relations with its immediate neighbors, namely Russia. Nationally, the French presidential elections will be held in two rounds in April, with far-right candidates Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen tackling burning cultural issues regarding French national identity, immigration and religion. Zemmour and Le Pen’s rhetoric risks inciting violence and further dividing French citizens at a time when patience is running out.
Macron’s recent comments that he wants to “piss off” the unvaccinated are unlikely to broaden his political base and provide ample food for the far right to portray him as elitist and domineering. Likewise, the outcry from the far right over the placement of the EU flag under the Arc de Triomphe is an example of identity battles that will be important and will continue to be espoused by Zemmour and Le Pen.
Moreover, after 16 years as Chancellor Merkel and a close Franco-German partnership between her and Macron, Germany now has a new coalition government led by Olaf Scholz of the Social Democrats. Scholz’s coalition has made strong statements that align with Macron regarding Ukraine, Russian aggression, and the need for European unity and greater European sovereignty. However, the transition of German politics is an opportune time for Vladimir Putin to test Berlin’s ambitions, and the first summit between Scholz and Putin will be essential to assess whether Putin sees Scholz as a formidable adversary and interlocutor. Thus, France is currently the dominant political actor in Europe and a firm hand by default, with an even weaker potential for political legitimacy for Macron depending on the performance of the far right in the April elections.
The second election looming in Europe, alongside the French presidential elections, will take place in Hungary. Hungary has proven to be a thorn in the side of the EU on many issues, including the rule of law and the bloc’s common migration policy. If Viktor Orban is re-elected, and despite his many differences with Brussels, Hungary will likely remain an EU member state for some time, knowing the immense value Budapest has in reforming the EU from within. Likewise, depending on the strength of the far-right vote in the French elections, Macron will have to skillfully navigate the place of Orban and his ruling party, Fidesz, in shaping the fate of Europe. “More Europe” may be a hard sell for Macron after the French and Hungarian elections, which may signal a deeper desire for more sovereignty and national control rather than grand designs for the future of Europe.
Macron is often presented in the media, especially in the biography of Sophie Pedder on her first year in power, as a great strategist with disproportionate and grandiose ambitions for Europe and France’s role in it. Nicknamed “Jupiter”, he is a tireless reformer whose greatest battles are often fought with the entrenched elements of the state he heads. These elements include the powerful French unions and the combined forces of the yellow vests movement who have since clung to the COVID-19 debate over vaccine passports. Upon entering the Elysee Palace, Macron was fully aware that reforming France would be a challenge that would create many enemies for him. However, he sees his leadership of France as a long arc that can have negative effects in the short term in order to place France in a more competitive and dominant position in Europe in the long term.
As the UK continues to wrestle with France and Brussels over the terms of its withdrawal from the EU, and Poland and Hungary engage in debates over the rule of law and constitutional authority, Macron’s biggest challenge might be to simply contain Europe rather than expand its powers and capabilities. . Thinking smaller may not come so easily to Macron, but during the term of the French EU presidency, the success of the union can be judged less on greatness and more on competence and handling of pre-existing conflicts.
Further reading on E-Relations internationales