French Presidency of the Council of the EU: what is meant by ‘European sovereignty’?

The programme of the French presidency centres around three ambitions: a more sovereign Europe, a new European model for growth and a more humane Europe. Presidency programmes usually have prosaic themes. There is therefore a risk that an abstract concept like European sovereignty could cause confusion. So, we set out below how this concept has been fleshed out in the work programme of the French presidency. We also consider how this approach might impact the already strained relationship between the UK and the EU. And most importantly, can the upcoming French presidential elections have repercussions for the “style” of the presidency of the Council?

The application of EU sovereignty

European sovereignty might seem to imply a work programme which centres primarily around the organisation of the Schengen area and migration policy. This is an item that is currently prominent in national election debates in France due to the steady and high popularity of extreme right parties since 2014 and it certainly features. However, European sovereignty is also used for other key policy areas such as food, environment, climate, economic and digital policies.

For instance, on food policy, European sovereignty is being defined as requiring that the stringent environmental and sanitary standards imposed on the European food supply chains should also be enforced for imports from third countries. Similarly, the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, an initiative which has for long been pushed and supported by President Macron and his government, would impose a carbon levy on imports of products from outside the EU. The French government is also promoting digital sovereignty, a call that had already been made by Angela Merkel when she was Chancellor. With the fear of over-reliance on powerful economies such as the United States and China, digital sovereignty aims to ensure European control over its own data, safeguard its capacity for innovation, and its ability to regulate in the interests of European consumers.

What about EU-UK relations?

France sees the UK’s departure as an opportunity to reinvigorate the EU and to cement its position as a driving force for reform of the EU. France’s vision of EU reform is very different from that which the UK would generally have favoured when it was a member of the EU. If France is successful, this is likely to see important policy areas become more federalised and the adoption of policy instruments that favour domestic EU production over production in third countries, like the UK. These policies are generally aimed more at China and the US but nonetheless could impact the UK. One example is satellite policy, where the EU seeks to build up its own LEO constellation and from which all foreign companies, including UK ones, are likely to be excluded. In the area of finance, however, EU measures are primarily targeted at London with the ambition of repatriating trade in EU financial assets from London and there is likely to be a steady pressure on firms to relocate more activity to EU financial centres. As regards, the most immediate bone of contention between the UK and the EU, the Northern Ireland Protocol, France does not appear to be prioritising a resolution. On the other hand, it may also require leadership questions in the Conservative party to be resolved before the UK genuinely prioritises improving implementation of the Protocol over grandstanding.

Macron’s European ambitions have a national election flavour

At the national level, the French presidency of the EU is also an opportunity to persuade the French electorate that Macron is the best candidate for President of France in April’s election. He seeks to do this by showing French voters that the EU can deliver for them and that he, Macron, is adept at pushing the EU to do this. The opposition parties are very alive to Macron’s use of Europe for domestic purposes. When Macron presented the Council Presidency priorities to the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the exchange of views quickly turned into a contest with opposition politicians about where politics should be pursued and for whom and against whom. In this context, “European sovereignty” is a phrase that is intended to reassure the French electorate that the perceived threats of globalisation are best tackled by a French government that promotes activist joint government at the European level rather than by alternative French governments that would seek to return to purely national and nationalist solutions.

So we can expect a more politicised EU Presidency than usual and a raft of announcements setting out how specific European policies are delivering concrete benefits for French citizens.

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