France wants to be primus inter pares in Europe despite a junked nominee for commissioner

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL October 15, 2019

Two recent developments indicate the internal political flux within the European Union and the jostling underway for the role of primus inter pares (first among equals).

Today, North Macedonia and Albania met EU ministers in the hope of starting talks to join the bloc. Paris is opposed. This, on account of the usual scepticism about EU enlargement as well concerns that the western Balkans could become a political weapon in the hands of the far-right in France.

Other EU countries, notably Hungary, are rather better disposed to the idea. Many support the start of accession talks, arguing that the hope of joining the European bloc is crucial to pushing back against growing Russian and Chinese influence. They also make a valid point about North Macedonia and Albania’s continuing efforts to be deemed worthy.

Indeed, North Macedonia went further than most EU-hopefuls, even changing its name to end a decades-old dispute with neighbouring Greece.

One European diplomat was recently quoted to say “We hope that in the end France will live up to its European leadership aspirations and join the EU consensus on North Macedonia.”

Mention of France’s leadership aspirations brings us to the second recent development within the EU. Last week, the European Parliament rejected France’s nominee for European Commissioner.

Sylvie Goulard was considered one of the most prominent and potentially powerful new commissioners, and her swift and brutal despatch by MEPs was initially seen as a sign that France itself – a “core” country in the bloc – was somehow failing in its attempt to assume leadership.

In actual fact, Ms Goulard’s humiliation was the outcome of multiple political misjudgments.

Last month, French president Emmanuel Macron’s centrist alliance in the European Parliament, Renew Europe, refused to agree a “non-aggression” pact with rival political groups to ensure everyone’s candidates for various jobs survived the hearings. So Ms Goulard was considered a likely target by the conservative European People’s Party (EPP), something that was bound to happen considering EPP leader Manfred Weber was blocked by the French president from getting the commission’s top job in the summer.

Now, Mr Macron will come up with a new nominee. What happens with him or her may be more telling than the events that roiled Ms Goulard’s confirmation.