Looking East: French and Czech EU Presidencies and their foreign policy priorities
Alexandra Martin is an Associate Fellow with the Center for Global Europe at the GLOBSEC Policy Institute.
Arthur De Liedekerke works as Project Manager at Rasmussen Global and is a Non-Resident Fellow at the Institute for Security Policy at Kiel University.
The current EU presidential trio – France, the Czech Republic and Sweden - have agreed on a number of shared, long-term objectives for their 18 month rotation at the helm of the Council. The four thematic priorities, affirmed in a 27-page document, include: 1) protecting citizens and freedoms, 2) promoting a new growth and investment model for Europe, 3) building a greener and more socially equitable Europe that better protects the health of Europeans and 4) fostering a global Europe.
The joint framework provides some manoeuvring space for navigating different national sensitivities and further provides optionality in prioritising certain dossiers over others. Each trio member has additionally developed its own more detailed six-monthly plans. The French presidency (known by the French acronym “PFUE”), for its part, is centred around three concepts under the banner "Recovery (Relance), Strength (Puissance), Belonging (Appartenance)".
Any presidency entails ownership over a range of issues and a pertinent diplomatic role in supporting an effective European foreign policy. Even before Russia’s heinous and illegal invasion of Ukraine, the French presidency promised to be an eventful period as the bloc seeks to better steer and refine its external relations.
Coinciding with two national elections and set against a particularly turbulent international environment, geopolitics had already loomed large. From the outset of 2022, Paris was confronted with addressing a crisis in relations with authoritarian Belarus, simmering tensions (at that time) along Ukraine’s eastern border and a deepening rift between China and Lithuania. Just four days after France assumed its presidential mandate, mass protests erupted across Kazakhstan, leading to a violent government crackdown.
As the PFUE comes to a close and Czechia prepares to take the reins, this contribution aims to 1) review developments on the foreign policy front during the French presidency, 2) identity programmatic discrepancies, if any, between Paris and its successor and 3) assess the prospects for and direction of Prague’s upcoming semester.
The PFUE’s foreign policy ambitions at the outset
France placed foreign policy goals in the first tier – A More Sovereign Europe - of its presidential programme. Particular emphasis was put on “structural initiatives” directed at the African continent and the Western Balkans. Stated objectives included:
- The European Union-African Union Summit of 17-18 February 2022 and a ministerial conference on trade partnerships with Africa;
- A conference on the Western Balkans on June 23rd, 2022, to explore and deepen concrete cooperation projects in the region.
These two focal regions conform to conventional French preoccupations and to President Emmanuel Macron’s own policy agenda. The legacy of French colonialism, notably, continues to render Paris “a privileged partner for many African presidents because of ongoing intelligence and military cooperation, political alliances, the possibility of military intervention, and a public development aid regime that has kept many regimes afloat.” Upon assuming office, Macron embarked on a project to reshape French diplomacy towards African countries, extending this ambition to the European relationship with Africa. Indeed, in his Ouagadougou speech of November 2017, the French President insisted that "it is not simply French-African dialogue that we must rebuild together, but a project between our two continents, a truly new relationship, redesigned at the appropriate scale where the European Union could speak and build with the African Union and with Africa as a whole".
As it pertains to the Western Balkans conversation, meanwhile, despite France's traditional reluctance to enlargement (think back to Nicolas Sarkozy’s blunt “non” to Turkey and France’s 2019 veto of EU membership talks for North Macedonia and Albania), Macron has walked a tightrope. Paris endeavours to boost the country’s foothold in this important region of Europe even as it avoids providing explicit accession promises. Macron unequivocally signalled his ambition to re-engage with the region as early as September 2017 in a speech at the Sorbonne where he set out his vision for Europe and ardently affirmed the future of the Western Balkans as within the EU. Macron has also sought to cultivate personal ties with numerous leaders in the region and co-hosted a Kosovo-Serbia summit with Chancellor Merkel in 2020. The language in the programme, accordingly, was certainly meticulously calibrated.
Notable goals in other regions of the world and with other partners included:
- Securing the endorsement of the European Strategic Compass by the European Council on 24 and 25 March 2022;
- For the Indo-Pacific, organising a ministerial forum in February 2022 bringing together EU Member States, the European Commission and Indo-Pacific partner countries;
- Reinforcing the Energy Council and the Trade and Technology Council (TTC) with the US;
- Expanding the EU’s relations with its partners in the security and defence fields (a paramount item concerned gaining approval to extend the EU’s Coordinated Maritime Presence in the North-Western Indian Ocean).
An agenda subsumed by political developments
Hardly three months following the presentation of its PFUE programme on December 9th, 2021, Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine. In a tragic reminder that if “history doesn't repeat itself, it often rhymes”, the Kremlin’s decision to attack a sovereign democracy aspiring for closer relations with the West elicited immediate parallels to its devastating assault on Georgia in 2008. A French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, held the presidency of the European Council at that time too.
The war unfolding in Ukraine spells the return of great power politics and marks a bittersweet moment for France’s leader. Many see it as vindication for France’s longstanding push backing strategic sovereignty and a more muscular EU defence pillar. In responding to Russia’s blatant aggression, the French presidency, alongside the European Commission and Parliament, has developed a swift, united and robust response. Since February 24th, the EU has adopted six sanctions packages aimed at undermining the Kremlin`s capacity to sustain its war against Ukraine and inflicting severe economic and political costs on Putin and his clique. Through the European Peace Facility, the EU, furthermore, has mobilised €2 billion to date to support the provision of defence capabilities to the Ukrainian Armed Forces. An additional €4.1 billion has been poured into Kyiv’s coffers in the form of macro-financial assistance, budgetary support, emergency assistance, crisis response funds and humanitarian aid. These measures underscore unprecedented unity and solidarity towards Ukraine despite some criticism that they have been too tepid, bureaucratic and slow to come by.
From a leadership perspective, meanwhile, President Macron has emerged as the sole EU crisis manager/mediator in the conflict, a development borne out of necessity rather than choice. While France had previously largely focused on the EU Southern Neighbourhood, Macron’s pivotal role in mobilising the international community to back Ukraine plays into his grand vision of better equipping Europe to respond to geostrategic threats that put European security at risk. Through “telephone diplomacy” and diplomatic overtures, he has maintained an open channel of communication with both Kyiv and Moscow in his bid to end the war.
An initial stocktaking exercise
France has managed to deliver generally satisfactory results on the aforementioned focal areas though this success benefitted from the contributions of its predecessors in the presidential role. The country’s distinctive influence likely played an integral role with respect to promoting fresh thinking on, for example, enlargement policy and the EU-AU summit.
In a speech to the European Parliament plenary on May 9th, Macron outlined his vision for the formation of a new type of parallel "political European community" that would allow countries outside the EU to join in "European core values”. A further statement clarified that it would take “decades” for Ukraine to gain bloc membership. These interjections have revived talk of “two-tier” Europe – though the ideas have triggered disdain they have also drawn some praise (e.g. from Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama).
The EU-AU summit was also finally held – no less in a face-to-face format - with more than 40 African and all 27 EU leaders present following a 16-month pandemic-related postponement. This success can, in part, be attributed to “the high convening power and good entente of French president Emmanuel Macron and Senegalese president Macky Sall, who hold the rotating presidencies of the EU and the AU.” During the two-day event, the two continents reaffirmed their partnership and the shared resolve to renew it (particularly through a €150 billion investment package).
The ramifications of the conflict in Ukraine, however, are now readily apparent with respect to several issues: 1) the need for a hasty revision of the Strategic Compass, 2) a clumsy attempt to mediate the conflict between Ukraine and Russia risks polarising Eastern and Western Europe and 3) a change in rhetoric regarding the Western Balkans.
The Strategic Compass, a project initiated by Germany and aptly steered forward by Portugal and Slovenia, was endorsed on March 24th by the EU Council. The document outlines the strategic priorities of the union to become a `stronger and more capable security provider` by 2030. Divided in four areas of action - Act, Secure, Invest, Partner - and adjusted based on Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the Compass presents a shared threat assessment of the EU27 for the first time and a newly found consensus on the bloc taking charge of its own security.
Yet the document falls short on a few accounts that directly contradict France`s grand quest for European strategic sovereignty. The provisions of the Compass are planned to be implemented over the next decade, a seemingly overly lengthy timeframe considering the existential security threats Europe is facing today. The alignment of strategic thinking of all EU Member States and the operationalization of this consensus in foreign and defence policy will remain the greatest challenge facing the bloc in the near future. Transforming Europe’s current nationally-oriented defence and technological industrial base to a European wide structure will require greater coherence to prevent duplications and further incentives to convert aspirations into action. Even though `the quantum leap forward on security and defense`, as described by HR/VP Josep Borrell, might be championed by Macron, it will take 26 other leaders to genuinely act on their sense of urgency to develop a credible EU defence.
In similar fashion to Sarkozy’s actions during the Russian invasion of South Ossetia in 2008, Macron has sought to carve out a role for France and himself as a mediator. But Macron’s choice of rhetoric (“We must not humiliate Russia”) has alienated CEE partners, chief among them Ukraine, and squandered considerable political capital across Europe more generally. Macron’s calls for a negotiated ceasefire and insistence on maintaining open communication lines with Russia, likewise, have bewildered many; in a thinly veiled dig at the French President, Kaja Kallas, the Estonian Prime minister, told Euractiv: “I feel that if everybody is constantly calling him, he [Putin] doesn’t get the message that he’s isolated. So if we want to get the message through that actually ‘you are isolated’, don’t call him – there’s no point.”
Macron’s approach, alarmingly, could come with unwelcome long-term consequences. France, firstly, is likely to be perceived as disregarding (again) CEE`s fears vis-a-vis Russia's threat to their security, thereby leaving half of Europeans distrustful of France and the EU`s willingness to act on the matter. The reputational costs incurred, secondly, could rather hinder Macron from continuing to play a meaningful role in the resolution of the conflict in Ukraine. The French President’s vision for achieving a bolstered European defence, finally, could suffer in the short to medium term from France’s (and Germany’s) lacklustre contribution to the war effort in Ukraine. Some countries are already once again turning towards relying on US capabilities and reaffirming the NATO framework as the bedrock of their security architecture despite EU announcements in this space (i.e. the Defence Joint Procurement Task Force).
Yet Macron’s recent visit to Kyiv, together with his German, Italian and Romanian counterparts, could attenuate some of the criticism directed at his perceived overly accommodative policy towards Moscow. The four leaders pledged to maintain their support for Ukraine - including the continued delivery of military supplies - and vowed to back granting candidate status to Kyiv at the upcoming EU summit. If the decision indeed proves forthcoming, it will be judged as a major success of the French EU presidency.
Winds of change coming from Prague?
Amid the most volatile European security environment post-WWII, the Czech Republic is scheduled to take the helm as the presiding country of the EU Council on July 1st under the motto “Europe as a task: Rethink, Rebuild, Repower”. The role marks Czechia’s second go at the position since it became an EU member back in 2004.
Apart from the general priorities agreed by the Trio Presidency, Prague’s agenda has been considerably influenced by events in the immediate neighbourhood including the implications of the conflict in Ukraine and its outcomes. According to Czech officials, the upcoming six months will be devoted to 1) EU coordination efforts vis-à-vis Ukraine and post-war Ukraine, 2) energy security and plans to further reduce energy dependency on Russian gas and oil, 3) European defence capabilities and the implementation of the recently adopted Strategic Compass, 4) the continued post-Covid-19 economic recovery and 5) resilience of democratic institutions.
Prague has planned at least two large-scale signature events for the second half of the year. The first pertains to a potential visit from US President Joe Biden to an EU summit that would accompany the launch of the presidency. Biden’s participation would further reinforce transatlantic unity against a turbulent backdrop and mirror the participation of former President Obama at a similar event that marked the first Czech EU Presidency back in 2009. The second event, meanwhile, concerns a donor concert dedicated to raising funds for the reconstruction of a future post-war Ukraine - details still need to be ironed out.
Given the present relative absence of any meaningful focus on China, it is unlikely that the September 10th anniversary of the 16+1 grouping of CEE countries, the Baltics and Western Balkans will be celebrated with much pomp. The EU-China relationship has been on a downward trajectory for several years now – this turn has been only further accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In light of discussions at the latest EU-China summit via video conference on April 1st, Europeans have indicated little appetite for a renewal in the relationship. The Chinese balancing act regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine and the complicated relationship between the Czech Republic and China could rather lead to more competition than cooperation in numerous areas including technology, trade and security during the country’s EU presidency.
Opportunities and challenges for the Czech Presidency
Three issues will undoubtedly take a front seat role during the Czech EU presidency throughout the second half of 2022.
With Ukraine potentially gaining EU candidate status at the EU Summit on 23-24 June, Prague will need, firstly, to continue to mobilise political, military and financial support to aid Kyiv in defending itself. At the same time, Ukrainian leadership must already be steered towards embarking on the reform path demanded by the accession process. Prague, to this end, could facilitate the process by creating a roadmap to identify initial focal points and areas where progress is both necessary and achievable in the immediate future.
Secondly, conversation around a possible 7th sanctions package is now looming on the horizon. In a speech to the Czech Parliament on June 15th, President Volodymyr Zelensky indeed called on the EU to take such action by imposing a complete embargo on Russian energy. It will, however, likely prove difficult to secure the necessary unanimous Member State approval to introduce the said sweeping range of restrictive measures. Soaring energy prices and overall higher living costs have already inflicted a heavy toll on consumers across Europe.
Governments would be required to take unpopular measures to compensate for any complete decoupling from Russian energy and find quick fixes to guarantee energy supplies for the coming winter. Although Prime Minister Petr Fiala confirmed that his country would “support the hardest sanctions against Russia”, Prague will be hard-pressed to galvanise European capitals to midwife such an agreement, itself being stuck between a rock and hard place. In a derogation to the sixth sanctions package, Czechia is allowed to import Russian oil products from refineries in other EU countries until the end of 2023 and remains very dependent on Russian gas.
The endorsement of the EU Strategic Compass and the upcoming adoption of NATO's new Strategic Concept, meanwhile, provides space and the need for the Czech Presidency to facilitate coherence and coordination between the two strategies and assess the objectives and tools agreed for implementation including force readiness, defence capabilities and spending. The threat assessments of the EU and NATO currently share considerable overlap. The Russian war in Ukraine and the return of conventional warfare in Europe, coupled with unconventional threats, have spurred a geopolitical awakening of the continent. The implementation of the Strategic Compass will need to be accelerated to prevent the (further) de-credibilization of the EU as a security actor.
The 27 different national foreign and security policies, however, may render this aim, as ever, a Herculean task. Prague, as a strategic transatlantic partner, will also be confronted with balancing the union's efforts to achieve strategic sovereignty - championed by France - and NATO`s moves towards a revamped, reinforced and credible posture on the Eastern Flank – a process spearheaded by the United States. As the bloc turns towards evaluating and planning post-war scenarios in Ukraine, Prague could, finally, play a key role in coordinating a transatlantic reconstruction plan targeted towards pragmatically specifying roles, responsibilities and funds for each partner in this endeavour. A joint initiative for reconstruction would also politically signal that the EU and the US are united in recognizing the future of Ukraine as within the transatlantic family.
Quo vadis EU?
So what has been achieved in the past six months and what can we hope to see further accomplished by the end of 2022?
The PFUE, notably, has managed to stay the course despite the ongoing horrific tragedy at Europe’s doorstep. The presidency has, in fact, made good on key foreign policy deliverables, including major international summits (EU-AU, EU and Indo-Pacific forum, upcoming high-level conference on the Western Balkans) and the adoption of the Strategic Compass. In so doing, it has advanced issues close to French interests at the EU-level, not least regarding Africa and the North-Western Indian Ocean. But Macron’s attempts at pursuing a careful balancing act between Kyiv and Moscow, characterized by perceived lukewarm military support to Ukraine, have cost him a considerable deal of political sympathy in CEE and beyond. The posture could, in the long-run, detrimentally impact the broader French agenda of strategic sovereignty.
With the Czechs set to start their presidency in less than 10 days, there are several challenges to keep a close eye on. The war in Ukraine will remain the most critical item on the agenda of the second semester of 2022. We will see continued extensive political, military and humanitarian support for Ukraine and post-war reconstruction efforts. Yet divergent views on how, if at all, to engage with the Kremlin will persist.
The urgent energy security matter is poised to accelerate Europe’s quest for strategic autonomy in non-military domains. Prague herein must champion an equitable and sustainable vision that will put all Member States and Ukraine at ease over the months and years to come (without backsliding to dirty coal). Following France`s success in embracing the adoption of the Strategic Concept, the Czech presidency should seek to continue working closely with Paris in forging the mobilization of forces across the EU to get the ball rolling on implementing the provisions of the concept. Efforts to improve the transatlantic relationship and foster closer EU-US coordination on Ukraine and other issues will also assume a higher place on the agenda compared to the French presidency. Czechia needs to walk a tightrope on this point too – it must not complicate the still nascent recognition on the need for a proper, credible and legitimate EU defense.
 The EU-AU Summit: From diplomatic success to a more balanced investment partnership (ecdpm.org)
 Stop calling Putin, Estonia’s prime minister says – EURACTIV.com
 “We are with you, be with us” – Zelensky echoes ’68 quote in speech to Czech Parliament | Radio Prague International