The French rotating Council presidency: what to expect regarding healthcare, agriculture and energy

© Ghislain Mariette / Présidence de la République

From 1 January until 30 June 2022, the Council of the EU will be presided by France. This article will provide an overview of France’s priorities for the rotating presidency. It will conclude by zooming in on three important areas: agriculture, healthcare, and energy.

On 9 December, President Macron announced the priorities for the French presidency of the Council of Ministers. In keeping with Mr Macron’s style of leadership, France’s level of ambition has been described as high by many commentators. The President said: “If I had to summarise the objective of this presidency […] in one sentence, I would say that we have to transition from a Europe of internal cooperation within our borders to a Europe that is powerful on the world stage, completely sovereign, free to make its own choices and master of its destiny.”

It should be mentioned that France’s high level of ambition may be chosen in connection with the French presidential elections of 24 April 2022. Macron has always profiled himself as a politician who promotes enhanced European cooperation and integration. This is in contrast with some candidates on the right-hand side of the French political spectrum, who are more Eurosceptic or even promote a ‘Frexit’. Of course, it is possible that the election campaign will affect the course of the French presidency of the Council of Ministers. If President Macron would not be re-elected, a change in government, and therefore European priorities, would occur. Looking at the spread of workload of the French presidency, however, we see that France is planning to have most of its priorities fulfilled before the elections.

The strategy contains three pillars. The first pillar concerns European sovereignty and security. The second pillar is called ‘building a new European growth model’. The third pillar concerns ‘a Europe on a human scale’. Again, a connection can be drawn between these priority areas and President Macron’s bid for re-election. On the one hand, the emphasis on sovereignty, security and ‘human scale’ are likely meant to appeal to right-wing voters who are concerned about migration, economic independence, and the perceived gap between themselves and far-away ‘Brussels’. On the other hand, it is likely that President Macron is trying to convince left-wing voters by emphasising the green and social economy facets of France’s priorities.

Pillar one: sovereignty and security

Referring to the migration crises on the EU’s borders with Belorussia and on the English Channel, the President said that there was a need for a better protection of the EU’s borders. This is to be achieved in three ways: first of all, by introducing a better ‘EU migration package’ to harmonise asylum rules and to better manage the flows of migrants across the EU. Secondly, France is hoping to pass an improved, common European oversight mechanism over the Schengen zone. Thirdly, it wants to create a border protection mechanism that enables Member States on the EU’s outer borders to call for help from the other Member States to secure their borders. The latter mechanism would serve as a supplement to the existing Frontex forces.

The second theme under the ‘sovereignty and security’ pillar concerns Europe’s defence politics. In March 2022, a White Book will be presented on the European Defence Compass. This document, on which work had already been started by Germany in the second half of 2020, will outline ways to achieve ‘European strategic autonomy’ by defining common threats and setting common goals. This should lead to increased defence cooperation between the Member States, as well as a more Europeanised defence industry.

The third theme under the ‘sovereignty and security’ pillar concerns the EU’s neighbourhood policies. Links between the EU and the Western Balkans should be improved by counteracting the influence of ‘destabilising regional actors’ (i.e., Russia) and fostering new investments. More striking, however, are the priorities of the French presidency regarding Africa. In February, the EU will organise a summit with the African Union to discuss the financial and economic ties between Africa, Europe and the rest of the world.

Pillar two: a new European growth model

On 10 and 11 March 2022, the French presidency will organise a summit of the 27 Member States to discuss Europe’s economic future. France envisages four priorities. The first priority concerns industrial production inside the EU. Having concluded that Europe has become too dependent on foreign chips and digital products and services, the French presidency will attempt to boost the development and production of batteries, medical equipment, sustainable goods and digital technologies inside the EU. To do so, France proposes to revise Europe’s financial budgetary framework, the Stability and Growth Pact. The revisions should enable the Member States to invest more freely in sustainability and the digital transition. Adaptations to the mandate of the European Central Bank and measures to complete the European Single Market for Capital be prioritised as well.

The second priority under this pillar is decarbonising Europe’s economy. The French presidency will emphasise the introduction of a carbon border adjustment mechanism (CBAM). As a result of the EU’s objective of achieving carbon neutrality in 2050, EU-made products will have to become more sustainable. To cover the costs of sustainability-related investments, it is likely that manufacturers will increase the prices of their products. When unsustainable products from outside the EU would continue to enter the Single Market with few restrictions, this would lead to unfair competition. The CBAM, therefore, imposes additional import duties on products from outside the EU that are produced in an unsustainable manner. This will increase the price of such products, making them less attractive compared to EU-made, sustainable products.

The third priority under this pillar is digitalisation. In this regard, France wants to create a European support fund for start-up businesses in the digital sector. The EU’s rules regarding digital products would need to be simplified, in order to create a more deeply integrated EU Single Market for digital goods and services. France also wants to move forward towards implementing the G20 agreement on the taxation of large multinationals, in particular the American tech giants. Two EU legislations will be prioritised during France’s presidency: the Digital Markets Act and the Digital Services Act. The former affects the organisation of Europe’s digital markets, with special considerations to prevent monopolies and the abuse of market power. The latter concerns the societal responsibility of digital service providers, for example in the field of content moderation.

The fourth priority of the French presidency regarding Europe’s economy concerns the EU’s labour market. France will boost discussions surrounding the proposed Directive for an EU-wide minimum wage. In addition, it will promote the proposed Directive for salary transparency, emphasising amendments to bridge the gap between the wages of men and women.

Pillar three: Europe on a human scale

Although ‘humanising’ Europe sounds appealing, it is also hard to define: what constitutes this ‘human scale’ that should be applied to the EU? The French presidency considers it to be a combination of different factors: defending Europe’s human rights and democratic values, promoting a vision for Europe’s future, boosting academic cooperation, and fostering cultural and artistic exchanges. Concrete measures under this pillar are the following: the establishment of a European Academy, modelled after the Institut de France; the creation of a 6-month European civic service for people aged below 25; and providing the European Union with stronger legal tools to fight racism, antisemitism and misogyny.

Concrete measures in the field of agriculture

Regarding farming, France will prioritise a number of initiatives, in the field of deforestation, biodiversity, pesticides and carbon farming. France will try to advance the negotiations regarding a European instrument to fight deforestation outside of the EU. This instrument will ban the importation of goods if they contribute to deforestation, such as certain unsustainably produced types of palm oil, soy, cocoa or coffee. Deforestation is linked to the fight against biodiversity loss.

Biodiversity is also connected to the debate on pesticides. In March next year, the European Commission is set to present a proposal for a revised Directive on pesticides. This will likely halve the use of pesticides across the EU. The French agriculture minister Denormandie stated that the future changes to the Directive on pesticides should first and foremost equalise European goals on the use of pesticides across all EU Member States. This should take away certain competition distortions that farmers experience.

On 7 and 8 February next year, France will organise an informal gathering of farming ministers from the 27 Member States to explore ways to promote the development of carbon farming. According to the European Commission, carbon farming is “a new green business model that rewards climate–friendly practices by land managers, based on the climate benefits they provide.” Between 26 February and 6 March, an international agriculture show will be held in Paris. A further conference will be held on 22 March in Paris to discuss epidemiological surveillance platforms. Scattered throughout the next half-year, different expert meetings will be held to discuss veterinary medication, forest management, and rural development.  

Concrete measures in the field of healthcare

Regarding healthcare, the French presidency will build on previous initiatives. In the words of President Macron, the EU should “further develop a true public health agenda,” which would strengthen European value chains for vaccines and primary health systems. Nonetheless, health does not appear to be the main priority of the French presidency of the Council of Ministers. The most notable initiatives in the field of health care in fact components of the wider agenda of the French presidency regarding Africa, European manufacturing, and the digital economy.

For instance, President Macron announced that the EU should continue its efforts to supply vaccines to Africa via the ACT-Accelerator mechanism and its vaccines pillar, COVAX. France does not support waiving intellectual property rights on vaccines or therapeutics. Regarding European manufacturing, we already saw above that EU-made medical equipment is one of the focus areas of President Macron’s plans for a ‘new European growth model’, alongside batteries and digital goods. The new rules regarding public and private investments as part of the deepening of the European Capital Union and the adaptations to the EU’s budgetary framework should boost investments in the pharmaceutical sector. This aligns with the Pharmaceutical Strategy of the European Commission, which seeks to increase the manufacturing of pharmaceutical goods inside the EU. Finally, regarding digitalisation, the French presidency can be expected to encourage the development of digital health services. Improving the conditions for digital start-ups and fostering the circulation of health data should lead to the development of new medical tools.

The positions of the French presidency regarding health were received with scepticism from opposition politicians and advocates of intellectual property waivers. They argued that health should have played a more prominent role in France’s programme for the presidency of the Council of Ministers. Some called for more ambitious initiatives in the field of healthcare. Certain commentators argued that intellectual property rights on COVID-19 vaccines should be suspended. This would enable countries in the developing world to produce their own vaccines, and therefore, counteract the global pandemic more effectively.

On 9 and 10 February, an informal meeting of the health ministers of the 27 EU Member States will be held in Grenoble. A consultative conference of the European Food Safety Authority will be held from 6 to 7 April in Maisons-Alfort. An informal meeting of the EU working group on global health will be held online on 5 May 2022. On 1 and 2 June, a meeting of the 27 Member State ministers will be held to discuss the digital health network eHealth, in Paris.

Recently, the Parliament and the Council of Ministers reached an agreement on strengthening the mandate of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC). An agreement on the extended mandate of the European Medicines Agency (EMA) has already been reached and will enter into force soon. HERA, the European Health Emergency Response Authority, is currently being set up. Interinstitutional negotiations on a Regulation on Serious Cross-Border Threats to Health are still ongoing. In the third quarter of 2022, the Commission will propose a non-legislative proposal for a European Care Strategy. In the fourth quarter, the EU’s General Pharmaceutical Legislation will be revised, as well as the EU legislation on medicines for children and rare diseases.

Concrete measures in the field of energy

As with healthcare, President Macron chose not to make energy a central pillar of the French presidency’s priorities. Nevertheless, energy is an important component of the objective of creating a ‘new European growth model’. In the words of President Macron, “achieving this objective does not mean producing or consuming less. It is about innovating, transforming our policies, putting in place good regulations and good investments, to save energy that can be saved. Meanwhile, we should continue to innovate and produce, to electrify everything that can be electrified, and to have an energy production that is as decarbonised as possible. We therefore have to invent solutions to decarbonise our economy which are compatible with an agenda of growth.” In addition, President Macron emphasised the importance of EU support for sustainable energy projects in Africa.

A sceptic commentator might argue that these commitments do not sound very concrete: although the French President called for more sustainability, he did not make any reference to concrete aspects of the Commission’s work programme for 2022. On 15 December, the Council of Ministers and the Parliament reached an agreement on a revised Trans-European Network for Energy (TEN-E). A proposal for a revision of the Energy Taxation Directive, which lays down minimum taxes on different fuels and electricity, is currently before the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. A contentious topic on the agenda that is also awaiting a decision is the European Emissions Trading Scheme. For next year, the Commission is working on a revision of the EU ambient air quality legislation (Q3 2022). A revision of the Renewable Energy Directive is expected to be approved in Q4 2022.

From 21 until 22 January 2022, an informal meeting of the energy and environment ministers of the 27 Member States will be held in Amiens. This will be followed by an expert group meeting on energy and nuclear issues from 4 to 6 May in Aix-en-Provence.

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Picture: © Ghislain Mariette / Présidence de la République

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