Structured around the triple focus on “Recovery, strength and a sense of belonging”, the French Presidency has been faced, since 24 February, with the outbreak of an intense and deadly conflict on the European continent due to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. This context highlights the urgency of the need for the European Union to increase its strength in order to protect its citizens and defend its values and interests in its close and distant neighbourhood. It also confirms the pertinence of the central theme chosen for France’s 13th presidency of the Council of the European Union: strengthening European sovereignty in all areas.
In its role holding this presidency, France thus took action on two fronts:
1. Alongside two other institutions, the European Commission and European Parliament, the French Presidency worked to provide a rapid, united and strong response to Russia’s aggression. As a result, the European Union:
- Adopted an unprecedented series of sanctions against Russia, with four sets of measures targeting Russian officials and responsible parties and their ability to finance the conflict;
- Took emergency measures to support Ukraine and its people, through unprecedented military support, activating temporary protection for refugees, direct and indirect financial assistance for Ukraine and synchronising the Ukrainian electricity grid with the European grid, in addition to action taken by Member States;
- Undertook urgent work, at the Summit of Versailles on 10 and 11 March, to accelerate reducing European dependencies, in particular in the field of energy. These dependencies are significant for certain Member States and constitute a persistent vulnerability for the entire Union. In May, the Commission will make concrete proposals to reduce this energy dependency by two thirds by the end of the year, which will enable further pressure to be placed on Russia.
- Undertook efforts to increase investments in defence, to generalise the major decisions made in this respect in several Member States and to reinforce Europe’s capacities and industrial base.
2. Despite the war in Ukraine, which has naturally had a significant impact on the French Presidency’s agenda, the Presidency has nonetheless succeeded in staying on course and continuing the work on the priorities initially set, which aim to strengthen the Union’s cohesion and ability to act. Major progress has been made in three areas in particular, which will be continued over the second quarter:
First, several major legislative instruments were adopted that aim to ensure that the EU’s interests in the fields of trade, climate and digital technology are better respected.
With regard to trade, the instrument promoting reciprocity in access to international public procurement markets was met with full agreement on 14 March 2022 after 10 years of negotiations. It will help us ensure a level playing field for our businesses and create opportunities for them abroad. Similarly, France advocated for imported products to respect European agricultural and environmental standards.
Concerning the ecological transition, a general approach was agreed upon for the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism on 15 March 2022. In guaranteeing fair rules for all businesses conducting trade on the internal market, this mechanism incentivises non-EU states to pursue more ambitious climate policies and ensures that we will not lose factories and jobs to high-emitting countries. This is a global first and an essential component of the Fit for 55 package (to reduce net greenhouse gas emissions by at least 55% by 2030, compared to 1990 levels), on which we will continue negotiations. In addition, the Council adopted a general approach on 17 March on a framework for a European chain of battery production, which furthers the momentum in support of the circular economy, technological excellence and reindustrialisation in the EU.
Lastly, regarding digital affairs, the Digital Markets Act was fully agreed upon on 24 March. It is the first regulatory framework in the world for digital markets and will help put an end to unfair practices by certain digital companies that impose their own rules. The French Presidency will also continue its efforts on the second major legislative project on digital services, the Digital Services Act, which should ensure improved accountability for digital platforms with regard to the content they publish. The war in Ukraine illustrates how this is as much an economic necessity as it is a democratic and strategic one.
Concerning the cohesion policy and values of the European Union, the French Presidency has also used all of the tools at its disposal regarding the rule of law. As such, it opened up a debate on strengthening these tools, including the rule of law conditionality regulation, which is now in force and which provides for the adoption of measures against any violation in this area that affects the EU budget. The Presidency also began revision of the Regulation on the funding of European political parties, which will prohibit non-EU countries in particular from funding European political parties. The Council also made a great stride regarding gender equality with its approval on 14 March of the draft directive, which was blocked for 10 years, aiming to ensure increased participation from women on company boards. Lastly, on 24 February the Council reached an agreement on the Directive on the non-financial performance of companies, which will make Europe a pioneer with regard to companies taking social and environmental risks into account. In the field of border management, the creation of the Schengen Council will bolster the consistency of decisions made by the Member States and the European Union on asylum and migration.
Lastly, with regard to the future of the Union, work on the Conference on the Future of Europe has moved forward and will entail the submission, on 9 May, of a report which will feature citizens’ proposals.
These discussions on the future of the Union should also cover Europe’s need to achieve sovereignty and step into its role as a true geopolitical player. This is the thrust of the priorities set out in the Strategic Compass, the white paper for European defence and security endorsed by the European Council on 24 and 25 March 2022.
In order to achieve sovereignty, Europe must fully assume its role in major geographical contexts, where a large part of its security and prosperity is at play. Given this background, the first forum between the European Union and the Indo-Pacific was held on 22 February this year, in order to provide structure for EU action in this region. Similarly, on 17 February, the major international summit under the French Presidency was held between the countries of the EU and the African Union. This unique partnership was reaffirmed, as was the shared resolve to renew it, in particular through an investment package of €150 billion. This package’s role is to enhance the diversification of inclusive, sustainable and resilient economies and to increase the stability and sovereignty of both continents.
Europe must also be capable of exercising this sovereignty in contested global commons. It is with this in mind that several initiatives were launched, namely the development of a European space strategy for security and defence, the approval to extend the EU’s Coordinated Maritime Presence in the North-Western Indian Ocean or the updating of the EU’s maritime security strategy.
The coming three months of the French Presidency of the Council of the European Union will provide the opportunity to continue implementing its priorities.