Omicron jeopardizes Macron’s major EU presidency plan – POLITICO

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PARIS – Emmanuel Macron had hoped that his country’s EU presidency would increase his own likely re-election bid – and then came Omicron.

Now, uncertainty about personal events, positive tests from senior officials and pandemic-dominated headlines risk jeopardizing a well-prepared program, partly designed to the French president shine ahead of the April presidential election.

“There is a risk” that the Omicron wave, which has swept across Europe in recent weeks, limits the influence of the French EU Presidency beyond the corridors of policy-making as local events in smaller cities move online, an official from Elysée Palace on Wednesday.

“The important thing to remember is that in this difficult sanitary situation, we have adopted a health doctrine. We are careful,” the official added.

France is particularly hard hit by the latest variant of coronavirus. On Wednesday, more than 332,000 new cases came out was registered in 24 hours – record high.

The Omicron wave is unlikely to make much of a difference to EU legislative work in Brussels – interinstitutional negotiations, working groups and the like – as the EU bubble has already learned to adapt over the last two years.

But dozens of events across France planned for the next three months are at risk of being canceled or made virtual, and this is already happening – a conference on the protection of workers sent from one EU state to another has already been moved online.

It would threaten the EU theme (and non-cycling) tour of France, intended to show French citizens outside Paris the benefits of the EU – and the key role Macron plays within it – as well as to win political points with local mayors ahead of the April vote. Macron has not officially declared his candidacy, but when he does, he will be the candidate with by far the most pro-EU agenda.

A bad start

The French Presidency of the EU Council – which started on 1 January and lasts for the first half of the year – has not had a promising start.

“If it were not for the flag episode, the beginning of the French Presidency of the EU Council would have gone almost unnoticed due to 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 flag waving solo during the Arc de Triomphe this weekend.

The hoisting of the EU flag (and not the French one) was intended to mark the beginning of the EU presidency, but quickly became a battle over France’s history and identity, and saw all Macron’s rivals turn against him.

This week’s visit to Paris by all EU Commissioners is proceeding as planned, although the program hangs in the balance due to the pandemic and needed to be readjusted by National Assembly President Richard Ferrand tested positive for COVID-19 on Monday. Commission Vice-President Věra Jourová will not take the trip because she is ill, a spokesman for the Commission said, although he did not say whether she had coronavirus.

This time last year, when Portugal held the rotating EU presidency, a visit to Lisbon by the Commission’s chief of staff resulted in three commissioners going into isolation due to risks of infection – a warning story for Paris.

Plan B and C

Despite the initial optimism that the roll-out of the vaccine would bring back something resembling normal life, the French authorities have drawn up three scenarios for the EU presidency, officials said: one where everything takes place personally, one where it all takes place online and a hybrid of two.

Barely a week later, and the optimistic, personal scenario is at least already out the window until January 23rd. In France, only “major” events and informal ministerial meetings with small delegations will continue in person until that date, and the authorities will meet again every two weeks to decide the way forward. In Brussels and Luxembourg, meetings are scheduled as usual (so far).

Macron’s speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 19 January, which is expected to be a key moment for both the EU presidency and his election campaign, is still ongoing, according to two French officials.

However, the fate of the dozens of other events with European legislators and a number of industries on issues ranging from aviation to the audiovisual sector in cities such as Toulouse, Angers and Marseille is unclear.

“The challenge is still to show … that Europe is as close to its citizens as possible,” said Marie-Pierre Vedrenne, an MEP from Macron’s delegation. She acknowledged that the “daily COVID crisis” made it harder to get that message across, but stressed that it was up to politicians to show people that the response to the pandemic is effective at European as well as national level.

The organization of events in cities across the country was also designed to help Macron get closer to local mayors from parties that could be useful in future alliances. For example, the mayor of Angers in eastern France – which is scheduled to host a day-long conference on the audiovisual sector in late January – is the general secretary of Horizons, the new party in the French president’s frenemy and former prime minister. Minister Edouard Philippe. Toulouse, where the annual Digital Assembly is to take place in June, is also led by a politician close to Philippe (Italy).

According to Maillard of the Delors Institute, the French president can still take advantage of the next three months of his country’s EU presidency if he succeeds in reaching political agreement on issues currently being addressed in the EU in time for the elections. Topics such as the minimum wage, the border-free Schengen zone and the CO2 border tax all resonate with the French public.

But more immediately, the pandemic could destroy one of the slogans of the French EU Presidency – “belong to.”

“It’s hard to get the ‘belonging’ feeling alive in a country where people are wondering what to do if they are positive about COVID and who will look after the children if the schools close, said Maillard.

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

This article is a part of POLITICS‘s premium policy service: Pro Health Care. From drug prices, EMAs, vaccines, drugs and more, our specialist journalists keep you on top of the topics that drive the health policy agenda. Email [email protected] for a free trial.

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