French President Emmanuel Macron pledged Friday to boost Europe’s strategic power and sovereignty, as France formally took the reins of the 27-nation bloc for the next six months with big ambitions.
A leitmotif of the French presidency over the next six months will be the need for greater autonomy for the region. Macron has been championing the idea since he took power five years ago and will use the rotating presidency of the Council of the EU, which sets the political agenda of the region, to try to put it into practice.
Speaking during a joint press conference with the head of the EU’s executive arm, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen, Macron said the bloc will finalise this semester the EU’s so-called strategic compass, its geopolitical strategy that focuses on defense capacity building.
"It will allow us to have a common European position at Nato and to act together in a more coordinated way," Macron said, adding that he wants to develop Europe’s defense industry and increase the bloc’s technological autonomy.
Amid lingering tensions between Russia and Ukraine, Macron added that the EU will also build proposals for "an architecture of European security," which is still largely dependent on the US and Nato.
Macron and Von der Leyen earlier paid tribute to a pair of leading European figures at France’s famed Pantheon, honoring the memories of Simone Veil and Jean Monnet.
Veil was a Holocaust survivor who repeatedly broke barriers for women in politics. She spearheaded the fight to legalize abortion in France and was the first woman president of the European Parliament. Monnet was a founding father of the European Union.
Both Macron and von der Leyen wore masks during the visit inside the domed building, amid a wave of coronavirus cases that somewhat overshadowed the beginning of the French tenure and caused trouble for the French leader ahead of the arrival in Paris of EU officials.
France's President Emmanuel Macron receives European Commission President Ursula van der Leyen as French turn as presidency of the Council of the European Union begins
Macron, who is expected to seek re-election later this year, made headlines earlier this week by using rude language in reference to the country’s minority of unvaccinated people.
In an interview with a newspaper, Macron described his strategy for pressuring vaccine refusers to get coronavirus jabs by using the word "emmerder" _ rooted in the French word for "c–p" and meaning to rile or ‘p– off’. His vulgar language dominated news broadcasts and provoked angry reactions from his political rivals.
To move things forward on the continental stage on the vast array of touchy topics he wants to tackle, Macron will need to adopt a more consensual tone with his EU counterparts.
With the coronavirus pandemic flaring in Europe and amid diplomatic tensions at the external borders of the EU, von der Leyen said she was pleased "that a country with the political weight and experience of France assumes the presidency of the Council at such a delicate moment."
"Because the voice of France speaks loud and clear, and France has Europe at heart," she said.
Among other main themes France wants to promote are the introduction of an EU minimum wage, a carbon tax on imported products and the reform of the EU’s fiscal rules. France also wants to accelerate discussions between member states to find a consensus on the stalled overhaul of the bloc’s asylum system.