After France took over the EU Presidency at the start of the new year it welcomed the European Commission on 6 – 7 January in Paris for working meetings to prepare legislative deadlines and to agree on key joint priorities for the months to come.
The meetings marked the formal start of the French Presidency. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and her college of Commissioners met the French President Emanuel Macron and the Presidents of the French Senate and the National Assembly. The visit allowed for discussions between the members of the French Government and the Commissioners.
In addition to these institutional aspects, tribute was also paid to the founding figures of the European Union when von der Leyen and Macron laid wreaths before the graves of Jean Monnet and Simone Veil at the Panthéon.
The programme of the French EU Presidency, under the motto Recovery, Strength and a Sense of Belonging, has been translated into English and can be found here. The 75-page long document covers all relevant policy areas on the EU agenda but details and commitments have largely been left out.
At their meetings, the French government and the Commission discussed a number of topics such as the environment and fight against climate change, a new budgetary and financial framework, EU industrial and digital policies, trade policy, European defence and relations with Africa, the Western Balkans and the Indo-Pacific region, and European social affairs and public health.
Judging by the joint press conference on Friday, Presidents von der Leyen and Macron seem to see eye to eye about the challenges facing the EU ahead and expressed cautious optimism that they will be overcome.
In her speech at the press conference, von der Leyen referred to both the worrying COVID-19 situation and the considerable tensions at EU’s doorstep, as shown by Russia's military pressure on Ukraine and its intimidation of Moldova.
“I am delighted, therefore, that a country with the political weight and experience of France is taking on the Council Presidency at such a delicate time,” she said. “France's voice resonates far and wide. And Europe is dear to France.”
Almost 80% of adults in Europe are already vaccinated and in France the percentage is 90 % but it might still not be enough to achieve group immunity, if it at all is possible. Neither of them seemed to exclude vaccine mandates. Being a citizen means accepting the duties which come with it, Macron said. Freedom is always combined with responsibility, von der Leyen said.
The Commission president outlined what she described an ambitious agenda for the next 6 months, from continuing the work on climate and digital transition, to stepping up security and defence efforts.
“The Commission has tabled detailed and ambitious proposals for achieving our objective of a 55% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. We want to achieve this in a way that is economically efficient and socially fair”, she said, adding that she counted on the French Presidency to move these proposals forward.
“Our common ambition is to make Europe a true digital power in the world, structured according to our rules and values,” she said referring to the digital transition. “I hope and indeed am sure that the French Presidency will move forward on these issues swiftly because, as we know, they are at the heart of European citizens' concerns."
She was also delighted that the Commission’s and France’s priorities converge in the energy area, for example the initiative to develop a competitive hydrogen sector to achieve the objectives of the European Green Deal.
Referring to the taxation of multinationals, she said that the EU is one of the first to implement this historic reform on a minimum tax rate. “I hope that we will quickly reach an agreement during the French Presidency because this reform is needed to ensure fair global growth.”
Another important topic is border management and the strengthening of the Schengen area, EU’s area of free movement. “This area is at the heart of the European project, yet it has been weakened by a number of crises," von der Leyen said. “We therefore want to restore, preserve and strengthen the openness of the European Union's internal borders.”
“I hope that the French Presidency will be able to give the necessary impetus to make progress on this issue. Of course, this also involves strengthening the management of external borders, combating smuggling networks and working with countries of origin and transit. That is why I also want to see rapid progress on our Pact on Migration and Asylum, which offers precisely such a comprehensive approach.”
Another area where France has vested interests is EU’s foreign and defence policies, including plans for a Defence Union that prepares EU for new threats in the future.
“So let us agree on our priorities using our Strategic Compass, which is a kind of White Paper on defence. I am delighted that the French Presidency has committed itself to this issue. I have high expectations of the discussion on this subject at the March Summit. I believe it is high time for the Europe of defence to move up a gear.”
Finally, she mentioned EU’s relations with Africa, another area which is prioritized by France.
“Africa is obviously a key partner for the future of our continent because it is a geopolitical, economic and demographic space that will be essential in tomorrow's world. I am therefore looking forward to discussing ways to deepen our partnership at the European Union and Africa Summit in Brussels in February.”
President Macron listened approvingly to von der Leyen’s list of priorities. As regards the tense relations with Russia, he underlined France’s special role.
“I think Europe must have a dialogue with Russia. To have a dialogue doesn’t mean to concede. To have a dialogue means to clarify our disagreements, try to build the future. We need a dialogue with Russia, which due to our geography and history is a key player for this European security we are trying to build”.
Both Macron and von der Leyen talked about the need to de-escalate the situation in Kazakhstan where recent violent protests have prompted the regime to ask for Russian military support to quell the uprising. However, the most urgent issue for the EU is the situation at the border between Ukraine and Russia.
Macron said that he together with the new German chancellor has proposed a new round of talks on de-escalation at the Russian-Ukrainian border. Von der Leyen added that any solution to the current tensions must involve Europe. The EU supports Ukraine by providing financial support and energy security, and by imposing sanctions on Russia.
The Brussels Times