Erekle Iantbelidze, Contributing Researcher, M.A. from the College of Europe
The status of the President of the Council of the EU is rotated once every six months among the member states of the political bloc. From January 1, 2022, after a 14-year pause, France has again taken up one of the most difficult and responsible tasks at a time the EU is facing tough domestic and foreign challenges. While the presidency of the Council should not present any new difficulties for France, as the state is assuming this role for the 13th time as one of the founding members of the European Union, nevertheless, political priorities, along with existing obstacles, have changed, and France, along with its leader Emmanuel Macron, has ambitious plans to advance the idea of European “strategic autonomy” under the motto “recovery, strength and a sense of belonging”.
The French Presidential Program of the Council of the EU is based on three important elements that coincide with the 2022 Action Plan of the European Commission. First of all, the idea a more sovereign Europe should be mentioned, in which the political bloc, in line with common values, will strengthen the Schengen Zone, oversee the migration policy and the EU border, and develop the European security and defense policy, contributing to the development and political stability of the neighboring countries. In terms of the neighborhood policy, France emphasizes the EU’s active involvement in the Western Balkans and the African continent. In addition, one of France’s main ambitions is the creation of the so-called new European model for growth, transforming Europe into a continent of production, job creation, innovation, and technology. This model of economic development must be in line with the objectives of the EU climate and digital transition. The French government has put forward the idea of a humane Europe, which means taking into account the views and ideas of EU citizens, upholding the rule of law and human rights based on common European values, as well as prioritizing culture, science, and education for future generations.
France’s ambitious plans are welcomed by some EU citizens, who expect the European bloc to attain “strategic autonomy” in a volatile international political environment. However, many also point out that the active involvement of France, and more so of the President of the State, Emmanuel Macron, in European affairs, is conditioned by the upcoming presidential elections in France. It should also be noted that it is Emmanuel Macron who is the most pro-European candidate in the French political field, and he has yet to openly state whether he will run again in the presidential elections of April 10-24, 2022. The results of the French presidential election will determine the future development prospects not only of the country, but also of the European Union, at a time when in France, as in other European countries, the phenomenon of political polarization is raging in ideological terms- and the far-right ideas of Eric Zemmour and Marine Le Pen will threaten the EU’s internal state unity and European security policy.
France last took over the presidency of the Council of the European Union in late 2008. At the time, the country was headed by President Nicolas Sarkozy, who had an active foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa region. His name is associated with the active negotiations within the framework of the “Barcelona Process”, which in 2008 resulted in the establishment of a new format of cooperation with the Mediterranean countries of the EU – the “Mediterranean Union”. This in turn helped create a new format – the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. Given its historical ties, the French foreign policy vector showed less interest towards the post-Soviet states and Eastern Europe. Consequently, during the French presidency, less emphasis was placed on the current Eastern Partnership countries, and to the east the main focus was on the Russian Federation. The five-day war between Russia and Georgia in 2008 attracted the attention of the French side, but only due to the fact that the position of the President of the EU Council was held by France. Willingly or unwillingly, the French side became the main player in the conflict mediation, which led to the drafting of a six-point plan by Medvedev-Sarkozy and the start of the Geneva Talks. The ceasefire between the Georgian and Russian sides was perceived as a positive development, while Nicolas Sarkozy’s political “weight” and France’s role increased internationally.
France’s European Neighborhood Policy was subject to some criticism from 2008 to 2012. Some political experts and diplomats have described Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign policy in both the Southern and Eastern Partnership countries as “immature” and “impulsive”. Indeed, during the Russo-Georgian war, France had a superficial view of the importance of Eastern European security, and was therefore unprepared and spontaneous in its response during its presidency.
Today, with the new presidency in place, some expectations are incipient in the EU’s neighborhood policy as well. The 2022 program reads: “France will support every issue discussed at the December 15 Eastern Partnership Summit. It will assist countries of the format in the process of advancing their resilience, stability, and sustainable development. The country will also openly support the aspirations and plans of the President of the Council of the European Union, the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, as well as the European Commission vis-à-vis the region”. On the one hand, France is sympathetic to the processes that accompany the Eastern Partnership format. However, on the other, we see little pathos or initiative in the program that would make the countries of this region a priority for France. In the official document, from a geopolitical point of view, there is much greater interest towards the African continent and the Pacific region. Despite Emmanuel Macron’s active involvement in Eastern European security matters, the French side remains “modest” in taking effective steps during its presidency of the Council.
As the events of the end of 2021 illustrated, the borders of Eastern Europe are in danger. Up to 100,000 Russian military and armored vehicles are mobilized within the occupied territories of Ukraine. According to a public statement made by the Russian Defense Minister, regular military exercises have been underway since December 1. The political move, declared openly by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a few weeks ago, is worrisome. Russia calls on the West to reject the position taken at the 2008 Bucharest Summit that sooner or later Georgia and Ukraine will become full members of NATO. The so-called “Normandy format”, which includes high-ranking politicians from France, Germany, Russia, and Ukraine, is becoming even more vital. Leading European states have made various statements calling on Russia to end the military tensions through escalating foreign policy processes. Despite the situation in Ukraine, France’s future plans in the EU format remain apathetic. There is a high risk that the 2008 scenario will repeat itself for France and Europe. Consequently, a relevant question emerges: L’Europe pourra-t-elle éviter le “déjà vu”?
It is impossible at this stage to make any predictions about the military escalation of the situation, although the assumption that the implementation of Macron’s (as well as France’s) 2022 European program may resemble Sarkozy’s 2008 infantile attitude towards Eastern Europe is not unfounded. The Eastern Partnership countries must take more active steps in the next six months so as to increase France’s interest towards the region’s socio-economic, political, and security situation. It is essential to firmly incorporate the role of the Eastern Partnership countries in the European “strategic autonomy” plans, so as to make the format states part of the EU’s security and defense policy.