Omicron puts Macron’s grand European Union presidency plan at risk

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PARIS – Emmanuel Macron was hoping his country’s EU presidency would boost his likely re-election bid – and then Omicron came along.

Now risks the uncertainty about in-person events, positive tests from senior officials, and pandemic-dominated headlines jeopardizing a well-prepared program, in part designed to achieve it The French president shines ahead of the April presidential election.

“There is a risk” that the wave of Omicron that has swept across Europe in recent weeks will limit the impact of the French EU Council Presidency beyond the corridors of political decision-making as local events in smaller cities are postponed online, admitted Officials of the Elysee Palace arrived on Wednesday.

“It is important to remember that in this difficult hygienic situation we adopted a health doctrine. We are careful, ”added the officer.

France is particularly badly affected by the latest variant of the coronavirus. More than 332,000 new cases as of Wednesday were registered in 24 hours – a record high.

For EU legislative work in Brussels – inter-institutional talks, working groups and the like – the Omicron wave is unlikely to make much of a difference as the EU bubble has already learned to adapt over the past two years.

But dozens of events across France, slated for the next three months, are in danger of being canceled or going virtual, and this is already happening – a conference to protect workers posted from one EU state to another has already gone online.

That would put the EU issue (and not cycling) at risk. Tour de France, aims to show French citizens outside Paris the benefits of the EU – and the key role Macron plays in it – and win political points from local mayors ahead of the April vote. Macron has not yet officially declared his candidacy, but if he does, he will be the candidate with the by far pro-EU agenda.

Bad start

The French EU Council Presidency, which began on January 1st and lasts for the first half of the year, did not get off to a good start.

“Without the flag episode, the beginning of the French EU Council Presidency would have gone almost unnoticed because of the dominance of this COVID wave,” said Sébastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute think tank, referring to the outrage triggered by the EU waving alone at the weekend. Flag under the Arc de Triomphe.

The hoisting of the EU flag (rather than the French one) was supposed to mark the beginning of the EU presidency, but it quickly turned into a battle for France’s history and identity, leading all of Macron’s rivals to turn against him.

The Paris visit of all EU commissioners this week is going as planned, although the program is hanging by a thread because of the pandemic and had to be readjusted after the President of the National Assembly, Richard Ferrand tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. Vra Jourová, vice-president of the commission, will not take the trip because she is sick, a commission spokesman said, but did not say whether she was suffering from the coronavirus.

Around this time last year, when Portugal held the rotating EU Council Presidency, a visit by the Commission’s top officials to Lisbon resulted in three commissioners being isolated due to the risk of infection – a warning for Paris.

Plans B and C

Despite initial optimism that the launch of the vaccine would bring back something resembling normal life, the French authorities have come up with three scenarios for the EU presidency, officials said: one where everything is in person, one where everything is online goes, and a mix of the two.

Hardly a week and the optimistic, personal scenario is at least out of the window until January 23. In France, only “major” events and informal ministerial meetings with small delegations will take place in person up to that date and the authorities will meet every two weeks to decide how to proceed. Normal meetings are planned (for the time being) in Brussels and Luxembourg.

Macron’s speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on January 19, which is likely to be a key moment for both the EU Council Presidency and his election campaign, is still going on for the time being, according to two French officials.

However, the fate of the dozen other events with European lawmakers and a range of industries on topics from aviation to the audiovisual sector in cities like Toulouse, Angers and Marseille is unclear.

“The challenge remains to show that Europe is as close as possible to its citizens,” said Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, MEP for the Macron delegation. She acknowledged that the “daily COVID crisis” made it harder to get that message across, but stressed that it is up to politicians to show people that the response to the pandemic is both European and national Level is effective.

Organizing events in cities across the country should also help Macron get closer to local mayors of parties that might be helpful for future alliances. For example, the mayor of Angers in eastern France, who is hosting a full-day conference on the audiovisual sector at the end of January, is Secretary General of Horizons, the new party of the French President and former Prime Minister Minister Édouard Philippe. Toulouse, where the annual Digital Assembly is to take place in June, is also headed by a politician near Philippe.

According to Maillard from the Delors Institute, the French President can still use the next three months of his country’s EU Council Presidency if he manages to reach a political agreement on current EU issues in good time before the elections. Topics such as the minimum wage, the borderless Schengen zone and the CO2 border tax are very well received by the French public.

More directly, however, the pandemic could spoil one of the French EU presidency’s slogans – “belonging.”

“In a country where people are wondering what to do when they are positive for COVID and who takes care of the children when schools close, it is difficult to feel ‘belonging’ to life wake up, ”said Maillard.

Elisa Braun, Rym Momtaz and Maïa de La Baume contributed to the reporting.

This article is part of POLITICS‘s Premium Policy Service: Pro Health Care. Our specialist journalists keep you up to date on health policy topics from drug prices, EMA, vaccines, pharmaceuticals and more. E-mail [email protected] for a free trial.

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