Time for a New French Method to Promote European Sovereignty

February 15, 2022
Gesine Weber
Dr. Raphaël Gourrada
8 min read
Photo credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com
France took over the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union in January.

The French focus on promoting European sovereignty is timely, but to achieve this, France must visibly promote European—not French—interests while actively strengthening transatlantic relations. The country is on the right track, but there is still room to improve this new method.

In early December 2021, French President Emmanuel Macron outlined the priorities for the French presidency of the Council of the European Union, taking place in the first half of 2022. France aims at leveraging its role to implement a program along three main axes, the first of which is to strengthen the EU’s sovereignty through an ambitious reform of the Schengen area and in the fields of economics; defense, border, and crisis management; and cooperation with Africa. Second, France emphasizes the need to build a new model of economic growth based on the imperatives of sustainable development challenges and digital regulation. Third, France wants to empower EU citizens through, for example, initiatives such as the European Year of Youth.

It is clear that Macron will not lower his ambitions, particularly regarding European sovereignty.

Admittedly, President Macron’s list reads more like a long-term global vision for the EU rather than a six-month program, especially since Macron will not even have six months. At the same time, it is clear that Macron will not lower his ambitions, particularly regarding European sovereignty. Thus, achieving the French objectives will require a twofold approach: striving for a new form of European leadership and embedding its Council presidency in a transatlantic context. 

European Strategic Sovereignty as a Natural Priority

With a tight calendar for the Council presidency, President Macron needs to prioritize among the three axes of the French program. Given France’s assets in the fields of security and defense, and the recent developments on the Ukrainian border, the focus on a more sovereign Europe appears almost natural. In fact, the current situation with Russia constitutes both a challenge and an opportunity for France: on the one hand, Russian President Vladimir Putin is raining on Macron’s parade when geopolitical order in Europe is discussed and the EU is not included. Macron will need a good argument to uphold his narrative of “Europe puissance”—a powerful Europe. On the other hand, the EU’s limited answer to Russia offers Macron an excellent window of opportunity to highlight the need for the EU to step up its sovereignty to be seen as a serious negotiator, and that this in particular matters for the Eastern European member states traditionally wary of his discourse on European sovereignty.

Focusing on a sovereign Europe—in terms of defense but also the economic or digital realms—could allow France to prove that its talk of “strategic autonomy” is more than just lip service. In fact, things regarding this matter have been in motion over the last few months. Since Macron’s Sorbonne speech, in which he continuously stressed the need for European strategic autonomy, European capitals have perfectly played their roles in near-theological debates on this subject: Eastern Europeans categorically refused the term, Germany reminded France of the importance of cooperation with NATO, and France underlined that strategic autonomy does not imply an isolationist approach but is perfectly compatible with NATO. And at the same time, the discourse out of Paris has changed remarkably, and policymakers in the French capital have almost completely dropped the term “autonomy” in favor of “sovereignty”—a clear signal to European counterparts but also international actors that France prioritizes a European objective over scoring a goal for itself in a war over wording. Nevertheless, France must also maneuver smoothly in order to build this sovereignty “for” and not “against,” and word choice remains paramount.

Playing for the Team: the Need for French Leadership in, not through, the EU

To achieve this balancing act, France must first and foremost clarify its approach to leadership during the Council presidency. The country is often (and not always without reason) accused by fellow Europeans and the United States of using the EU as a vehicle for projecting its power on the international scene, and France’s partners will be looking for signs that it can promote collective European interests. 

In fact, the rotating presidency of the Council is mostly a coordinating role, where the incumbent country can try to broker a consensus on its priorities. The key challenge for France is therefore ensuring this role as a dialogue facilitator without scaling back its ambitions. Concretely, this means giving priority to fostering dialogue and building coalitions around core objectives. Aiming for a French-German co-leadership is certainly the right method to promote concrete solutions with groups of willing states that share its level of ambition: particularly in advancing climate policy—even if the taxonomy and opinions on nuclear energy create tension—and a European sustainable growth model, Macron will find a strong partner in Berlin. At the same time, France should seize opportunities for building alternative coalitions with states like Italy, Spain, the Netherlands, or Sweden. Spain and the Netherlands could become crucial partners for Macron’s ambitions regarding European defense, as a Spanish-Dutch non-paper published in 2021 laid out very similar visions and ambitions for Europe’s role in the world. Focusing on coalition-building could hence underline that France is mostly dedicated to achieving a shared European objective—and not only to exercising French leadership for the sake of achieving a French objective.

The time and resources Macron can dedicate to the EU Council presidency are limited, and he will hence have to choose his issues wisely—and avoid blending in domestic politics.

A major challenge for showing that France is an honest broker and aims for leadership in, and not through, the EU is the upcoming electoral campaign. Though not officially announced yet, there is little doubt that Macron will run for a second term in April 2022. In the 2017 campaign and over the five years since taking office, Macron has presented himself as a European president to France, and never tired of stressing the importance of the EU for his country. In a tight electoral campaign, Macron may be tempted to use the Council presidency as a forum for his presidential run and vice versa, but this would significantly undermine the leadership of France as an honest agent for Europe. The confrontation between the ecologist candidate Yannick Jadot and the French president at the EU Parliament on January 19 gave an unfortunate glimpse into such a misuse of European issues for French electoral purposes, as the parliament debate instead turned into a clash between two would-be election candidates. The time and resources Macron can dedicate to the EU Council presidency are limited, and he will hence have to choose his issues wisely—and avoid blending in domestic politics.

A Window of Opportunity for Transatlantic Relations—with Diplomatic Tact

Focusing on European sovereignty, France should be bold and go one step further, looking across the Atlantic during the Council presidency. Even if it sounds almost paradoxical at a time when its relations with the United States are tense, France also needs to be aware that getting closer to European sovereignty can significantly benefit from coordination with the United States. Consequently, France should use the Council presidency to seek synergies between European sovereignty and transatlantic cooperation. 

Perhaps most challenging, France must show that its leadership in the EU and a stronger Europe on the international scene are perfectly compatible with a healthy transatlantic relationship—and that France is not, as often accused, anti-American or opposed to transatlantic relations and NATO. In fact, President Macron and high-level French officials continuously underline that any European defense initiative, while operationally autonomous, must be compatible with NATO. As surprising as this may sound, President Macron is, in the current political climate, probably the most transatlantic president one can get in France—if one sees the transatlantic relationship as a partnership of equals with the EU as a serious player. During the Council presidency, it will hence be crucial for President Macron to show that France is not anti-American and that his vision of an inclusive and strategically autonomous EU offers many opportunities for cooperation. 

One of France’s key roles should be to strengthen Europe’s position before the forum and ensure that the Europeans appear to be willing, unified partners for joint security challenges, thus moving past the lack of coherence and coordination that usually poses a challenge for Washington.

And maybe the most promising starting point for this endeavor is the EU-US Security Forum, slated to be held in the first months of the new year: the EU is now included in transatlantic security dialogues, previously understood as a domaine réservé of NATO. Here again, one of France’s key roles should be to strengthen Europe’s position before the forum and ensure that the Europeans appear to be willing, unified partners for joint security challenges, thus moving past the lack of coherence and coordination that usually poses a challenge for Washington. In fact, focusing on security to advance transatlantic cooperation during the French presidency of the Council of the EU is, in light of the current developments in Ukraine, much more a necessity than a choice. Behind the scenes, coordination between France and the United States is close, and the former has become the latter’s most important interlocutor in the EU, particularly in absence of a credible German foreign policy in this context. Here again, France must seize the window of opportunity to enhance transatlantic cooperation and, in particular, avoid sending potentially ambivalent signals to Washington. Macron’s idea presented to the European Parliament in January—first formulating a European response to Russia, then coordinating with NATO, and finally taking action together—is a promising method for more European unity, but there was no doubt that this suggestion would trigger incomprehension in the United States. To bring the United States on board for achieving European sovereignty, Macron should rely on tact and diplomacy behind the scenes rather than public pathos, which can and should be kept for matters where the EU can take concrete steps on its own, so that this double approach of clearly articulated European leadership and de facto solidarity with the United States constitutes a winning strategy for European sovereignty. France is already on the right path—and has five more months to make the most of it.

Dr. Raphaël Gourrada is a Fellow at Institut Open Diplomacy and member of the Paris Chapter of the Young Transatlantic Network of Future Leaders.