France will be overruled on Monday when the EU votes to launch trade talks with the US — putting Paris at odds with Berlin and other capitals for the second time in a week.
The trade talks are a priority for Germany to try to defuse transatlantic tensions. But Paris said last week that it would oppose the negotiations on the grounds that US president Donald Trump has rejected an international deal to fight climate change.
Senior French officials admit it is “probable” that France will be the only country to vote against starting talks on Monday, leaving Paris isolated and giving Brussels the task of leading negotiations opposed by one of the EU’s most powerful members.
President Emmanuel Macron’s stance that France “must make its voice heard” in opposing the talks because “the long-term European project is at stake” echoed his hardline position at a Brexit summit of EU leaders last week. He fought a long delay to the UK’s EU exit on the grounds that it would destabilise the bloc.
While Mr Macron has won domestic plaudits, the episodes have made an outlier of a president who promised to lead in Europe, with Berlin among those on the other side of the argument.
With EU elections approaching in May, Brussels is bracing for more assertive gestures from Mr Macron. At home, the French president is determined to sideline the weaker parties of the right, the left and the ecology movement and frame the vote as a contest between his pro-European La République en Marche and the anti-EU Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen.
His moves over the past week have gone down badly with other capitals. One European diplomat said other member states were “growing more and more exasperated by French political grandstanding ahead of the European elections . . . It is quite disappointing to see the Elysée increasingly putting party interests before European interests”.
Paris contests that it is fighting on important points of principle for the direction of the EU, while noting that its opposition to the trade talks also sends a clear message to voters.
“France will continue to hold high its commitment to the climate,” said one official in Paris. “It is a major issue for the coming months and for people’s choices in the European elections.”
The planned US-EU trade negotiations are the fruit of an accord last July by Mr Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, to ease trade tensions. The centrepiece was a plan for a zero-tariff trade deal on industrial goods.
Berlin is desperate to stop Mr Trump targeting the EU car sector with punitive tariffs. But when Brussels published draft negotiation plans in January, Paris sought safeguards for crucial sectors and said negotiations should only start after the EU elections — seen as too late by other capitals.
Diplomats noted that in some respects Monday’s vote will give everyone what they want — with France able to take a stand while Germany gets the trade negotiations under way. “Macron gets run over now, but it’s better than going ahead with something that is highly unpopular,” said Hosuk Lee-Makiyama, director of the European Centre for International Political Economy.
But the decision marks a rare moment of isolation for France, which has proved adept down the years in not being cornered in EU affairs.
According to data compiled by VoteWatch Europe, Paris has only voted against one EU law that was adopted in the last decade: a 2014 regulation to protect aromatised wines such as vermouth. By comparison, the UK voted against 52 laws from mid-2009 to the end of 2018, including a post-crisis overhaul of EU banking regulation.
André Sapir, senior fellow at Bruegel, said a “sharpening of differences” in the run-up to an election was natural — but what would matter was the ability to regroup afterwards, especially when it comes to Franco-German relations.
“They will need to sit down seriously and say what is our common agenda for Europe,” he said. “You don’t want those two things that happened this week to build up to something that makes it difficult for the next five years of Europe.”