Corporate Europe Observatory – The distorted priorities of the French EU Council Presidency

Nothing changes in the EU: neo-liberalism, neo-liberalism, and still more neo-liberalism – and much more inequality.

The Corporate Europe Observatory is a non-profit research and campaign group whose declared aim is to “expose any effects of corporate lobbying on EU policy making”.

Cross-posted from Corporate Europe Observatory

Under the influence II teaser

In January, France will take on the rotating Presidency of the Council of the EU for a period of six
months. This Presidency will have a particular resonance both in France itself, coinciding as it does
with Emmanuel Macron’s re-election campaign, and at the European level, with many critical
pieces of legislation and policy on the line.1 It is therefore worrying that this Presidency has been
prepared in close collaboration with the French corporate sector, and is setting a policy agenda
that strongly reflects business demands. The government looks set to promote its own vision for
supporting powerful ‘champions’ from among EU and especially French multinationals, no matter
that these will not be very different from the US and Chinese players that Macron criticises.
Furthermore, a sceptical eye will need to be cast on the claims of the Presidency as, in too many
policy areas, grandiose rhetoric is unlikely to match the achievements in reality. Nowhere is this
more stark than in the area of European democracy where Macron’s stated desire to “stop building
Europe in isolation from citizens” is contradicted by his government’s approach behind the closed
doors of the Council. Finally, we see that the French Government has missed the opportunity to
break clean from the worst practices of previous presidencies, and has accepted corporate
sponsorship. All in all, unless urgent change occurs, the French Presidency will put public interest
decision-making at risk.

Key findings:

1. France has chosen not to do away with the controversial practice of bringing in corporate
sponsors for its Presidency of the EU Council. Carmakers Renault and Stellantis – both with a
huge stake in EU policy developments during the Presidency – will be allowed to showcase their
logos and boost their profile to decision-makers.

2. The little information we have about the meetings between officials and stakeholders
during the preparation of the Presidency suggests a very strong bias in favour of industry
lobby groups. Of the 40 lobbying meetings disclosed by the French representative in Brussels
and his deputy, 31 were with corporations or industry groups, but only 2 with civil society (the other
7 were with think tanks or public institutions). Evidence suggests meetings with industry groups
began well before the subject of the French Presidency of the EU was even on the agenda of the
French Parliament.

3. French institutions – both the French Representation in Brussels and ministries in Paris –
offer numerous examples of problematic ‘revolving doors’. For instance, an adviser on energy
at the French Representation in Brussels has previously worked for TotalEnergies, and former
energy advisers have moved on to become lobbyists for Engie and Arianespace. Similarly, former
advisers on financial issues now work for Société générale, Amundi, and even for France’s main
banking lobby group Fédération bancaire française. Revolving doors create a risk of privileged
access for industry lobbyists, as well as conflation between the public interest and the private
interests of French corporations – but French representatives deny this is even an issue.

4. The French Presidency of the Council will be entangled with the campaign for national
elections in France. In spite of official assurances that there would be no confusion, there are
signs that the agenda of the French Presidency and the agenda which Emmanuel Macron is
preparing for his re-election bid are closely interrelated – in particular the push for nuclear energy
and industrial champions. Some ‘quick wins’, such as the implementation of a minimum corporate
tax rate, might be spun out of proportion for electoral purposes. This will inevitably hurt the quality
of democratic debate, and the policy outcomes secured, during the Presidency.

5. In the name of climate action, the French Government is pushing for more public support
and funding for controversial industries, including a renewed push for the nuclear sector.
For the sake of nuclear energy, the French Government appears willing to undermine the integrity
of the European Green Deal and other EU policies on the climate crisis, for instance with the
demand that gas is seen as ‘green’ in the Green Taxonomy which will direct financial flows
accordingly, and generally through the prioritisation of industry-pushed ‘techno-fixes’ instead of
structural changes to make our lives more sustainable.

6. While the French Government has been vocal on the need to regulate US-based Big Tech,
there is concern it seeks to replace these with home-grown digital champions. Despite talk of
‘digital sovereignty’, a flurry of lobbying activities in the run-up to the Presidency appears to be
pushing a European digitalisation agenda that appears no more benign than that of Silicon Valley’s
in terms of privacy, basic freedoms, privatisation, and workers’ rights.

7. The French Government is advocating a ‘Europe of Health’, but it doesn’t seem to have
drawn the lessons of the COVID pandemic in terms of addressing the excessive bargaining
power of pharmaceutical companies or properly investing in public health systems. On the
contrary, its vision seems to entail even more public funding to private corporations and for new
markets in the care and health sector, particularly ‘e-health’, with several events on the topic
planned during the French Presidency

8. The French Government is bringing its own traditions of close public-private
collaboration in so-called ‘strategic’ industrial sectors to the EU level. There is growing
momentum at the European level for ever closer public-private collaboration and ever more funding
for corporate players in so-called ‘strategic industries’ (including hydrogen and cloud technology),
often with a dubious technological agenda and without proper democratic debate.

9. French EU Commissioner Thierry Breton – chosen by Emmanuel Macron and the first
corporate Chief Executive to be directly selected as Commissioner – is closely aligned with
the French Government’s agenda. An explicit supporter of the nuclear industry, he has had
numerous meetings with French corporate interests since the beginning of his mandate, and been
very active in promoting public-private cooperation and the development of corporate champions in
strategic sectors.

10. In stark contrast with Macron’s discourse about the need for more European democracy,
the French Government has systematically opposed efforts to improve transparency and
accountability at the level of the Council of the EU. The French Presidency appears as a
missed opportunity to change gears and push an ambitious democratic agenda. On the contrary,
its push for supporting ‘European corporate champions’ risks creating new forms of corporate
capture of EU institutions and policy-making.


Seven reasons why you should care about the French Presidency

1. There will be a lot of important EU legislation on the agenda during the French Presidency
2. The French Government will not be shy about pushing domestic economic interests
3. The French Presidency coincides with national elections
4. The French Presidency is prepared in close collaboration with big business
5. The French Government seems very comfortable with the opacity of EU Council decision-
6. The French Government brings its own forms of corporate capture to the EU level
7. What is good for European corporations is not necessarily good for its citizens
What needs to happen?
There are some basic steps the French Presidency has failed to take (so far) to avoid excessive
corporate influence. There is still time but the clock is ticking and the eyes of Europe’s citizens are

Avoid privileged access for corporate interests, stop meeting with any fossil fuel
industry representatives, ensure transparency of all meetings with lobby groups
Avoid events with corporate partners and ban all corporate sponsorship
Introduce stronger rules to prevent revolving door moves which provoke conflicts of
interest, and avoid and address potential conflicts of interests among officials in the French
EU Presidency
Boost transparency and accountability of EU law-making by opening up Council
deliberations, especially working party meetings and trilogues, and ensure that national
MPs are consulted and able to scrutinise member state policy-making on EU matters
Prioritise the public interest in all EU policy-making.

1. Case study: Real climate action or false techno-fixes?
The French Presidency of the Council will come at a critical time to tackle the climate emergency.
Yet, the political position of Macron Government on climate issues is marred by a glaring
contradiction. On the one hand, it is keen to advertise itself as climate champions; on the other
hand, it has taken political choices to make industry-driven technology the sole possible response
to climate change. The government has come under fire for building a cynical alliance with Poland
and Hungary to push for the inclusion of both natural gas (a fossil fuel) and nuclear electricity in
the EU Green Taxonomy, which will direct financial flows accordingly. Macron recently announced
massive investments in French nuclear energy generation. The government is also supporting
hydrogen production as a new market for nuclear-generated electricity. Hydrogen is often
presented by industry and some governments as a ‘green’ and ready-for-use climate solution,
although this is very far from the truth, as almost all hydrogen is produced from fossil or nuclear
energy. Another crucial policy issue that might be decided during the French Presidency relates to
emission standards for cars. The French automobile lobby has been vocal in the past few years in
its obstruction to ambitious regulation, threatening massive job losses in the industry if new
standards are too stringent. Corporate beneficiaries from the French Government’s approach on
these issues are likely to include EDF, TotalEnergies, and Engie in the energy sector, and Renault
and Stellantis from the automotive industry, also now lined up as sponsors of the French

2. Case study: Is EU Big Tech any different to Silicon Valley?
The French Presidency will aim to complete two files aimed at regulating the digital economy,
including the economic power of Big Tech, namely the Digital services act and Digital markets act
both of which have been the subject of major lobbying in Brussels. The French Government takes a generally ambiguous position on these matters. On the one hand, it demands regulation of
Silicon Valley Big Tech, to protect European companies and creative industries, and to reduce
dependence on foreign corporate giants. On the other hand, it has focused – in the name of
digital sovereignty – on supporting European digital champions to compete with the US and
China. The government has never really addressed how different from US Big Tech these EU
competitors would be in reality. In line to participate as European ‘champions’ are Atos, Dassault
Systèmes, and Thales, all French companies with connections to the arms and security industry,
raising questions about privacy and freedoms. Digitalisation may also go hand in hand with further
privatisation or outsourcing of public services, including open markets such as education or health
to private companies, as with e-health, which features high in the French Presidency’s agenda. A
summit on Digital Sovereignty is due to be organised in Paris in February 2022 as part of the
French Presidency initiatives, focusing on issues such as cybersecurity, independence from the
US, and sovereign cloud services.

3. Case study: Eyeing up EU opportunities for French defence sector
France has the largest defence industry in the EU and it has constantly pushed to increase EU
spending on defence, both for geopolitical reasons and as a source of funding for its arms
companies, which play a prominent role in the French economy. Defence is a priority for the
Presidency. One of the top files will be the finalisation of the Strategic Compass, the first pan-
European defence strategy. Following the European Defence Summit in February 2022, EU
leaders are likely to endorse the Compass in late March 2022 at the European Council. 2022 has
already been branded ‘the year of European defence’. The key French defence corporations –
Thales, Airbus, Safran, and Dassault – have received financial support from EU institutions. Since
1 July 2021, the Permanent Representative of France has met with both Dassault and Airbus
Defence and Space, and his Deputy with Airbus. Furthermore, revolving door cases illustrate the
close links between the French Government and French defence corporations: in January 2020,
the head of the Internal Market (among other policies) department in the EU office of the Prime
Minister left his job to become the head of the Brussels lobby office of Safran.

4. Case study: The French Government as an obstacle to transparency and accountability
In 2017 Macron asserted that “the essence of the European project is democracy”. He also said:
“we must stop being afraid of the people. In terms of our approach, we must simply stop building
our Europe in isolation from them”. Yet the French Government has repeatedly placed itself on the
wrong side of the debate on Council transparency and accountability. In 2019 the government
refused to join an initiative by ten other member states which put forward proposals to improve
the “current disconnection between the EU’s transparency policy and citizens’ expectations”. The
Macron Government was also among the most reluctant of member states to agree to the
publication of more documentation on both Council deliberations on legislative proposals, and on
the trilogue process which is when the Council prepares to finalise new EU laws with other
institutions. The government’s support for corporate sponsorship of rotating presidencies has also
helped ensure a set of weak guidelines on this matter. In a similar vein French decision-making on
the positions it takes in the Council is decided by the government and the Élysée, without proper
transparency and accountability mechanisms, including to MPs. In the upcoming elections
Macron will get attacked from the far right about a ‘remote’ and unaccountable EU. The strongest
bulwark against the far right is real democratic scrutiny and accountability to the people, yet
Macron’s vision for ‘sovereignty’ when it comes to issues of transparency and accountability
seems to boil down to keeping EU Council matters as secret as possible.

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