French president Emmanuel Macron’s first European Council, on June 22 and 23 2017, was always going to be a momentous event for Brussels. After a tumultuous presidential campaign in France, in which the European Union and its institutions took a beating from several candidates, Emmanuel Macron’s pro-European movement En marche ! (Onwards!) made him a favourite in the Belgian capital and amongst the political elite.
The French president, upon arrival at the Council under the beating summer sun, with an optimistic glow emanating from him, proclaimed that he would be seeking to promote “a Europe that protects”.
“A Europe that protects”
Before the Council, in an interview with eight European newspapers – including The Guardian and Le Figaro – Emmanuel Macron detailed his international agenda, including his plans for the European Union (EU). Most importantly, he stressed the importance of “promot[ing] a Europe that goes towards greater economic and social wellbeing”. This includes leading on European integration with more social protection in tandem with Germany. The president highlighted the necessity of respecting the democratic values of the EU – with a subtle nod at the Eastern European response to the migration crisis – and not just treating it “like a supermarket”.
Also, Emmanuel Macron qualified the use of chemical weapons and disrespect of humanitarian corridors in Syria as a “red line” and reiterated his commitment to the US’s return to the Paris climate agreement.
During this interview, he first drew attention to the notion he would then repeat at the Council: “The key to get going again is a Europe that protects”. This not only includes anti-terrorism security measures and defence, but also climate change, the challenge of migration and the inequalities caused by globalisation”.
An early political feat
He won his first political victory on the first day of the European Council, on June 22, during the working session dedicated to further strengthening coordination on anti-terrorism efforts amongst the Member States. With the recent terrorist attacks in several European capital cities, the issue was deemed one of the most important on the leaders’ agenda for the two-day Council, with a focus on cooperating with the online industries to fight radicalisation.
Emmanuel Macron, joined by British Prime Minister Theresa May, presented their Franco-British action plan that they had previously discussed during bilateral talks in Paris on June 13. This action plan, which aims to put pressure on Facebook, Twitter and Google to develop solutions to improve the detection and suspension of hateful content that could lead to radicalisation, was “discussed at length” according to the French president.
The conclusions adopted during this work session dedicated to anti-terrorism measures were in line with his and Theresa May’s strategy. Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, made the matter concrete during his joint press conference with Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission: “if need be, the Council is ready to adopt the necessary legislation” almost echoing word-for-word Emmanuel Macron’s original statement to the French press concerning the matter the week before.
President Emmanuel Macron hold a joint press conference with Chancellor Angela Merkel on the second day of the European Council in Brussels © Bérengère Sim.
Migrant workers: not all rosy
Despite Emmanuel Macron’s early – and successful – imposition of an action plan, tensions arose surrounding the issue of European migrant workers.
During a press briefing with Philippe Etienne, the president’s diplomatic councillor, and Clément Beaune, his councillor on European affairs, following a tense meeting with the Visegard Group (Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and Slovakia), the two reiterated that Emmanuel Macron was determined to reach a “good deal” on the rights of European migrant workers. If they accept a compromise, then “there must have been progress in the agreement”, they added.
Before the European Council, the Prime Minister of Poland, Beata Szydlo, accused Emmanuel Macron of “antipathy” following his accusation that Eastern and Central European countries used the EU as a “supermarket”. She stressed that Poland was open to cooperation with France but that it would depend on the president’s attitude.
The visibly thorny issue of migrant workers will be discussed again at the next European Council in October 2017, during which Emmanuel Macron hopes an agreement will be reached. Philippe Etienne and Clément Beaune smiled confidently: “we are optimists”.
A Franco-German cherry on the cake
Emmanuel Macron’s diplomatic plat de résistance was saved for the very end: a joint press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Theatrically, anticipation mounted around lunch time on the second day as rumours bounced through the quiet corridors of the Council: “they’re saying Macron and Merkel are having a joint press conference but no one will confirm”.
As the traditional midday Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker press conference was delayed, journalists swarmed to the French national briefing room on the gamble the two Heads of State and Government would appear.
With the suspicions and rumours eventually confirmed and the doors opened, the press was privy to a very public display of diplomatic affection.
“When France and Germany do not agree, Europe cannot move forwards”, declared a determined Emmanuel Macron, with a steely look in his eyes. Angela Merkel echoed the sentiment pointing to a “spirit of renewed confidence”. The two Heads of State and Government discussed their ambitions for the European Union: regulated free trade, the creation of a European defence fund, employment, migration and Brexit.
Emmanuel Macron chose to send a strong signal of both his willingness to strengthen the Franco-German relationship and his commitment to the European Union in general. The question is now whether this updated “common force” between the two Western European countries will have the impact that Emmanuel Macron hopes on the European project. Make the EU great again?
Picture caption: Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Emmanuel Macron hold a joint press conference on the second day of the European Council in Brussels © Bérengère Sim.
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