France Takes Helm of EU With Russia-Ukraine Tensions Hanging Over Region

As France commenced its six-month stint at the helm of the Council of the European Union, President Emmanuel Macron announced plans to use the temporary presidency to bolster Europe's strategic power and sovereignty.

He also acknowledged the ongoing tensions between Russia and Ukraine and said that the EU will craft proposals for "an architecture of European security" during France's leadership.

The presidency of the Council of the EU rotates between the different member states of the bloc. France took the reins on January 1, for the first time in 14 years, according to the nation's government.

But France's presidency comes as the shadow of the Russia-Ukraine tensions hangs over the region. Russian troops have built up near the Russia-Ukraine border, sparking fears of a Russian invasion into the former Soviet Union member nation.

EU and Western leaders have repeatedly warned Russia against such a move, but the Kremlin has denied the allegations that it plans to attack, CNN reported. Moscow has also countered that NATO's military support for Ukraine represents its own growing threat to Russia.

France Takes EU Helm
France began its six-month presidency of the Council of the European Union on January 1, 2022. Above, French President Emmanuel Macron welcomes President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen prior to a meeting at the Elysee Presidential Palace on December 7, 2021, in Paris, France. Chesnot/Getty Images

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 finalize 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.

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.

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.

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 "crap" and meaning to rile. 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.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Russia Ukraine Tensions
Russian troops have built up near the Russia-Ukraine border, sparking fears of a Russian invasion into the former Soviet Union member nation. Above, Ukrainian soldiers keep watch on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists, not far from town of Avdiivka, Donetsk region, on December 10, 2021. Anatolii Stepanov/AFP via Getty Images