Emmanuel Macron will demand that the EU harden its approach to free trade talks when he meets his counterparts in Brussels this week, as the French president seeks to show critics at home that the bloc can be more protective of French farmers and workers.
Mr Macron wants EU leaders at their summit on Thursday and Friday to instruct the European Commission to put a brake on trade talks with South America’s Mercosur and to revisit its strategy before pursuing negotiations with Australia and New Zealand, according to French diplomats.
The French leader is also urging the EU to raise the environmental and health standards and strengthen the notion of “reciprocity” when negotiating a free trade deal, one aide said.
“It seems to us that we are putting the cart before the horse,” a French government aide told the Financial Times. “We should first think about what we want exactly before heading for negotiations.”
The French push goes against a move by Jean-Claude Juncker, the commission president, to accelerate talks with Mercosur — comprising the beef-producing South American nations Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay — with the aim of a deal by the end of the year.
After more than a year of preparatory work, Brussels recommended last month that the bloc enter trade negotiations with Australia and New Zealand, two large agricultural exporters.
As well as brokering new deals, Mr Juncker is also determined to avoid the political quagmire of 2016 when the Belgian region of Wallonia came close to scuppering a major free trade agreement with Canada, known as Ceta.
Brussels has since indicated that future trade deals could be legally split in a way that would allow the vast majority of what is negotiated to be adopted by the EU Council and parliament without the need for potentially complex national ratification processes.
Cecilia Malmström, the trade commissioner, said in an interview last week that the intention was not to leave national parliaments in the cold.
“Nobody, even if member states have different views, nobody really wants to repeat the Ceta saga,” she told the FT, adding that the intention was to find ways to keep parliaments involved without necessarily giving them a veto on issues that, legally, can be adopted at European level without national ratification.
“They need to be involved but maybe they don’t need to vote on the final outcome,” she added.
But the commission’s move has raised hackles in some member states, such as France and the Netherlands, which fear a loss of control over the details of deals that could affect sensitive industries such as agriculture.
Speaking in Brussels on Monday, Edouard Philippe, French prime minister, said that Paris refused to “give a signal that we do not respect national parliaments in the implementation of these agreements”.
The French initiative is part of wider efforts by Mr Macron to beef up EU commercial protections just as he struggles to convince sceptical voters to embrace reforms at home.
Since defeating Eurosceptic far-right candidate Ms Le Pen in a presidential runoff in May, he has sought to show that his pro-business, deregulating policies to make France’s jobs market more flexible and cut public spending would come alongside more protective tools at an EU level.
As part of an ambitious plan to transform the EU, the centrist Europhile has pushed for a tougher screening of non EU-investments, advocated the creation of pan-EU corporate champions and touted the idea of a Buy European Act — to the point where some claim he has protectionist leanings.
But at home, Mr Macron has faced criticism from the far-right and far-left for not opposing Ceta. The president has asked experts to conduct a review of the accord to see whether it needs improving before France ratifies it.
Speaking to farmers and meat producers last week about his plans for overhauling the French farming industry, Mr Macron criticised Brussels for getting ahead of itself with the Mercosur talks, denouncing Brussels’ “haste”. He also suggested that the EU set up a “food safety investigative body”.
“I am not in favour of rushing to strike a deal before the end of the year [with Mercosur],” he said, noting that the framework for those discussions had been agreed in 1999, when environmental and health norms were not as stringent, consumption habits were different and the European industry was healthier.
Mr Macron added: “It is therefore necessary that these negotiations be updated if we want to pursue them.”