The French and European statesman Jacques Delors, age 96, was too frail to venture out on a cold, damp December night to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the institute that bears his name.
So Pascal Lamy, another French European of high repute, read a message from Delors to several hundred guests, including president Emmanuel Macron, at the historic Odéon Theatre on Monday. It was a time to reflect on all that has been achieved in Europe, and to look forward to France's assumption of the rotating presidency of the European Council.
“In the beginning, Europe was conceived of as a project of peace. It must think of itself today as a power; as becoming a power that is responsible and generous in the world,” Delors’ message said.
"Belonging to Europe today means refusing to let oneself belong to China or Russia, or to passively align oneself with the US."
Power and independence, two French obsessions for Europe, will be dominant themes as France dictates the EU's agenda from January through June 2022.
“Over and above reform, we must achieve a practical, amicable and peaceful strategy of power,” says Clément Beaune, Macron’s minister for European affairs.
In a union of 27 members, the presidency comes round only once every 14 years. This presidency happens to coincide with the French presidential election, so Macron is determined to achieve visible progress in Europe in the first three months of the new year. If he is defeated on April 24th, his successor will complete the French term.
The French are delighted that a fervently pro-European German government has been formed before the start of their EU presidency. Macron will give a rare press conference, on the EU presidency on Thursday afternoon. Tradition dictates that French and German leaders reserve their first official visit for each other, and the new chancellor, Olaf Scholz will visit the Élysée on Friday.
"France and Germany have reached an unprecedented degree of closeness, transparency and confidence," says a senior German diplomat in Paris. The 180-page contract for government drawn up by the German SPD, Greens and Liberals says they want to lead the EU "towards a federal European state".
Paris and Berlin have reached understanding after coming from radically different starting points. The French vision of a powerful Europe is rooted in their desire for "reincarnation" as a great power, while Germany's quest for "redemption" for the sins of the Nazi era makes it leery of power, says Thierry Chopin of the Delors Institute, quoting Jimmy Carter's advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Although Germany remains more wedded to the Atlantic alliance and budgetary rigour than France, the Trump presidency and the pandemic have led to greater flexibility in Berlin. Germany no longer rejects the possibility of future mutualised debt, now that a precedent has been established with the EU’s €750 billion Covid recovery fund.
Sébastien Maillard, the director of the Jacques Delors Institute, says the German coalition contract has been received in Paris "like the delayed response from Germany" to Macron's 2017 Sorbonne speech, in which the French president made more than 50 proposals for European integration.
“The conjunction of European ambitions on both shores of the Rhine has the potential to get things moving,” says Maillard.
Most of France’s European partners do not share its fervour for more integrated European defence.
“Defence is at the heart of the state, and of sovereign power. The French are sometimes impatient because we see the urgency of it,” admits Clément Beaune.
Macron wants the EU presidency to strengthen the regulation of internet giants, advance towards a “social Europe” through adoption of a minimum wage system, elaborate a new European immigration policy and establish a carbon tax on Europe’s borders. These priorities mesh with French domestic preoccupations.
“A lot of us believed that Macron would be a great pro-European leader,” an Italian diplomat told Le Monde. “They rapidly realised that he was above all French.”
Macron's battle against "illiberalism" in Hungary and Poland transposes his confrontation with the extreme right in France onto the European stage. He sees himself as a progressive leader, staving off the rise of nationalist populism.
“Our concern over illiberalism is not a short-term fight against Hungary or Poland. It is not about tension between eastern and western Europe, nor does it mean that France has not accepted enlargement,” says Beaune. “It is about the defence of European values.”
When the Covid pandemic started, national governments began negotiating individually with vaccine manufacturers. Macron convinced his European partners to centralise procurement, which made possible a Europe-wide vaccination campaign and substantial donations of vaccines to Africa.
“We have to show that Europe makes us stronger,” Macron said at the Jacques Delors celebration. He told Poles and French people to “be nationalists if you want to, but remember you were vaccinated with the best vaccines because you are Europeans.”
France is the second most euro-sceptical country in the EU, after Greece, so staking his re-election on Europe is a gamble for Macron. Yet he has deliberately cornered the pro-EU market in French politics.
“To the extent that a politician can be sincere about anything, Macron is a convinced European,” says Michaël Darmon, the author of three books on the French president. “He knew when he was elected that this EU presidency was coming up. He has thought long and hard about it.”