Macron Is Now the EU’s De Facto Leader

Macron Is Now the EU’s De Facto Leader
President of the European Council Charles Michel, left, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen arrive for a press conference in Versailles, March 11, 2022 (AP photo by Michel Euler).
Many in Brussels are breathing a sigh of relief this week following French President Emmanuel Macron’s reelection in Sunday’s presidential runoff. But now that fears of a Marine Le Pen presidency can be put to rest, eyes are quickly turning to the French legislative elections scheduled for June. The result of those polls will determine just how powerful Macron will be at the European Union level over the next five years. But one thing is clear: The French president currently faces little competition for the title of the EU’s most influential leader. Since France took over the EU’s six-month rotating presidency in January, Macron has been keen to portray himself as the “president of the EU,” with a broadly sympathetic French media only too eager to apply that moniker. Technically speaking, however, Macron has no formal role in France’s presidency of the Council of the EU, which is the upper house of the bloc’s legislature made up of national ministers. He himself sits in the European Council, the collegiate body of EU national leaders that already has a permanent president, Charles Michel. It is the French government, not its executive, that holds the EU rotational presidency. The distinction is nonetheless almost immaterial, because whether or not France holds the EU presidency, Macron is essentially the EU’s de facto leader, and that is unlikely to change even after France hands over the baton to the Czech Republic on July 1. With the departure of former German Chancellor Angela Merkel last December, Macron currently faces very little competition among his peers in the bloc, having spent a considerable amount of time steadily building his power base in Brussels. He essentially handpicked the two EU presidents, Ursula von der Leyen at the European Commission and Charles Michel at the council. Michel, a French-speaking former Belgian prime minister, is viewed in Brussels as little more than a Macron puppet. Macron has also formed a solid alliance with Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi that has served as an idea incubator for Europe over the past two years. Macron undoubtedly has his adversaries, most notably in Hungary and Poland, with which the EU remains locked in prolonged rule-of-law disputes. But with that “illiberal axis” currently under strain over disagreements on the Russia-Ukraine war, Macron’s opposition at the EU level is more divided than ever.

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At this point, there is only one potential obstacle standing in his way: the French parliament. France’s Fifth Republic is designed such that the president’s party almost always has a parliamentary majority, particularly after a referendum in 2000 to reduce the presidential term from seven to five years effectively ensured the two elections would take place in close proximity to each other. But there are some concerns this year that Macron may not have enough momentum to mobilize his voters to head back to the polls in support of his party’s parliamentary candidates. His far-left rival Jean-Luc Melenchon, who came in third in the first round just behind Marine Le Pen, urged his supporters Sunday night not to vote for Macron’s LREM party in the upcoming parliamentary elections. He has since framed the ballot as an election for the prime minister’s office, which he hopes to occupy. To that end, he is trying to assemble a leftist coalition of his France Unbowed party with the Communists, Greens and the center left to deny Macron a legislative majority. For her part, Le Pen also urged her supporters to vote for lawmakers from her far-right National Rally party. If LREM doesn’t get a majority in the parliament, Macron might be forced into a “cohabitation” arrangement with an adversarial prime minister that could see him lose control of not only his domestic agenda, but also his EU agenda, as whoever ends up as prime minister could appoint ministers who are in opposition to it. That could gum up EU lawmaking in Brussels, because those ministers would cast votes on legislation in the Council of the EU. Macron, sitting next door at the European Council, would not be able to influence their position on key issues, let alone stop them, unless the legislative issue is bumped up to the council. Such a scenario would export Paris’ domestic political squabbles to the EU Council’s halls of power and would likely prove destabilizing for legislative work here, while also eroding Macron’s political capital. Macron received some good news Monday when the first poll conducted since Sunday’s election projected his LREM would secure an absolute majority in June. But seven weeks is a long time in politics, and given the potential for backroom deals and horse-trading among the various parties, anything could happen between now and then.

In Other News

Russia turns off the gas taps on its European neighbors. Russian gas giant Gazprom informed Poland and Bulgaria on Tuesday that it would be ending gas deliveries to them, citing their refusal to settle payments in Russian rubles, as President Vladimir Putin demanded. The news prompted a panic in the energy markets the next day, which European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tried to stem by assuring that the two countries would be able to fill any shortfalls with gas supplied from their EU neighbors. “It comes as no surprise that the Kremlin uses fossil fuels to try to blackmail us,” she said. “Our response will be immediate, united and coordinated.” On the same day, Bloomberg reported that 10 European countries have started paying Gazprom in rubles, citing a source close to the Russian energy giant. Asked if this violates EU sanctions against Russia, von der Leyen was clear: “To pay in rubles, if this is not foreseen in the contract … is in breach of EU sanctions.” Though it was believed that the commission would put forward its proposal for an EU embargo on Russian oil this week, a plan has not yet materialized. Von der Leyen said the commission is working “intensively” on it. The EU is moving on from its “emergency” coronavirus phase. The commission decided Wednesday to formally pivot from an “emergency” phase in the union’s COVID-19 response to a “more sustainable management of the pandemic.” The new strategy would reduce testing but make it more targeted, and it would increase sequencing and vigilance to detect newer coronavirus strains. "We must not lower our guard. How we prepare today will determine the course of the pandemic in next months and years,” said EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides. Elon Musk versus the EU. Given France’s focus on its presidential election, Paris hasn’t had much success in bringing legislation to a close in the Council of the EU—the main job of the rotating presidency. But it landed a major policy breakthrough Saturday, reaching an agreement with the EU Parliament on the EU Digital Services Act. The legislation, which was a key priority for Paris, will force social media companies to take more robust action against illegal content and disinformation. The agreement came just in time, as only a few days later it was announced that Elon Musk will buy Twitter and make the platform a free speech “absolutist.” EU Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said this week that Twitter must comply with this new EU law or leave the European single market. “If companies such as Twitter want to benefit from the EU market, they will have to follow these rules,” he said. “I don’t mind what they do outside of Europe. But inside, if they don’t respect the rules, they face fines of 6 percent of their turnover or, for repeat offenders, pure and simple banishment.”

Dave Keating is an American-European journalist who has been based in Brussels for 12 years. Originally from the New York City area, Dave has in the past covered the halls of the U.S. Congress in Washington, courtrooms of Chicago, boardrooms of London, cafe of Paris and the climate campaigns of Berlin.

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