France’s upcoming presidency of the European Union will aim to “move towards a powerful Europe in the world, a fully sovereign Europe, free to make its own choices and able to master its destiny,” said French president Emmanuel Macron.
The six-month tenure, due to start on January 1, overlaps with the country’s presidential election.
Here are six takeaways from Macron’s speech on Thursday as he unveiled Paris’ priorities for the rotating presidency of the 27-nation bloc.
1. Towards a reform of Schengen
Macron told reporters that he wanted a Europe that is “able to control its borders” and would introduce a reform of the Schengen free-movement area.
“To prevent the right of asylum — which was invented on the European continent and which is ours to honour — from being misused, we must absolutely find a Europe that knows how to protect its borders and find a political organisation that puts us in a position to defend its values, which is why we will initiate, under this presidency, a reform of the Schengen area,” he said.
He cited “attempts at destabilisation, tensions including in our closer neighbourhood” as some of the reasons for the move.
In recent months, the bloc has accused Belarus of encouraging asylum-seekers to cross from the country into neighbouring EU members Poland, Lithuania and Latvia.
Macron insisted on the importance of relations with the African continent and announced an EU-Africa summit to be held in February in Brussels.
“It is in our common interest. We must do this as Europeans, by building a future for African youth to reduce inequalities, to fight against the trafficking that exploits misery and the smugglers who have turned the Mediterranean into a cemetery of shame,” Macron said.
2. Defending Europe’s social model
Macron emphasised “the defence of our social model,” calling for “a model of production but also of solidarity.”
On March 10 and 11, France will hold “an exceptional summit around a new European growth and investment model,” the French leader said.
The bloc’s post-COVID economy needs new budget rules, Macron told reporters.
He proposed to “rethink the budgetary framework” of Europe previously defined by the Maastricht criteria, arguing that the question of being in favour or against the 3 per cent deficit rule was “outdated”.
Drawing on the success of the Erasmus programme, Macron also said he wanted a six-month “European civic service” for all young people under 25.
3. ‘Reconciling climate ambitions and economic development’
The French president vowed to “reconcile climate ambitions and economic development” and outlined plans for the EU’s new border carbon tax.
“Under the French presidency, one of our objectives will be to implement the carbon adjustment mechanism or the famous carbon “tax” at the borders of Europe, which will enable us to carry out this transition for all our industries, while preserving our competitiveness,” Macron said.
“The European economic players can’t be the victims of efforts” to tackle climate change, he insisted.
He said the bloc shall “move towards a European tool to fight deforestation,” forbidding the import of products that contribute to deforestation.
4. Digital transformation among ‘top priorities’
Macron then outlined plans to “transform Europe into a digital power.”
Two legislative packages are currently underway at EU level — the Digital Services Act and the Digital Market Act — and they will be the French presidency’s “top priorities”, according to him.
He added that they would contribute to the “regulation and accountability of platforms.”
5. Rule of law ‘non-negotiable’
On the rule of law debate that has divided western and eastern Europe, Macron warned: “these are issues that are existential, they cannot be negotiated.”
Answering a question about Hungary’s Viktor Orbán, whom he will meet shortly, the French leader said: “He is a political adversary but he’s a European partner.”
“We must work together for Europe,” he added.
6. Macron plays down interference with French presidential race
Macron has faced criticism — both in European capitals and at home — for not postponing France’s EU presidency, which could put him in a tricky position if he campaigns for re-election.
At the press conference on Thursday, he said “`France will remain France” no matter who wins the election and promised he would govern “until the final minutes of his term.”
Although he is widely expected to run, Macron has yet to formally declare whether he will seek a second term.
When questioned by journalists, he declined to present himself as a candidate.
“Good try,” he recently told reporters when asked about recent election polls. “I’m first going to try to do the task which I have been given, and we still have a lot of work to do to fight the epidemic.”
France’s presidency of the Council of the European Union could provide a platform for Macron’s campaign but also complicate it if the race is focused primarily on domestic issues such as the French economy, security and immigration.
The pro-EU leader would be able to use the presidency to influence the decisions of the 27-nation bloc, yet the EU’s complex and consensual EU decision-making process might play against him and produce few concrete outcomes before April’s election.
Macron promotes a vision for the EU’s “strategic autonomy” that would allow the bloc to better weather competition from China and put it on a more equal footing with the United States.
Notably, he is pushing for “a stronger and more capable European defence” that contributes to transatlantic and global security and is complementary to NATO.
France’s motto for the EU presidency is “Recovery, power, belonging” — where the last word is meant to convey the idea of enhancing Europeans’ sense of shared belonging to the union.
It is the first time since 2008 that France will hold the EU presidency.
The press conference was only the second one held by Macron at the Elysee presidential palace to answer a broad range of questions. The first one took place in April 2019 following the anti-government “yellow vest” protests against social and economic injustice.