Free traders buckle up for the French:

Politico Morning Trade – Slovenia is still gearing up to take over the rotating Council of the EU presidency on Thursday, but some trade diplomats are already starting to worry about who comes next: the French.

What are they worried about? More liberal and open trade-minded countries are worried in particular that come January 2022 when Paris takes the wheel, it will have a powerful platform and perfect storm of conditions to push back against their perspective: Britain out of the picture; a push for more “strategic autonomy” in the EU; and a presidential election in the spring in which Emmanuel Macron is seeking another term.

Such anxiety over France’s Council presidency reflects the age-old trade frictions between more liberal countries and Paris with its revamped strategic autonomy push.

“The goal is simple: We have to get as much done as possible before the French are in charge,” said one EU trade diplomat from an open trade country.

Watch out for Paris: The outgoing Portuguese Council presidency even used such worries about the French as leverage to clinch a deal on the international procurement instrument, according to another EU trade diplomat, closely involved in these negotiations.

The French had long been pushing for this instrument to nudge countries worldwide to keep procurement markets open by threatening to close the EU market reciprocally. More liberal EU countries initially saw this measure as too protectionist, but the pandemic and the economic rise of China shifted positions in Germany and other countries, offering new momentum to unlock negotiations.

To convince the final critics, the Portuguese reminded skeptical countries that they’d better strike a deal now so that trilogues with the European Commission and Parliament would be led by Slovenia instead of the French, according to the diplomat involved in the file, adding that “this really helped to get some countries over the line.”

‘Diplomatic paranoia’: French trade veteran Pascal Lamy, who previously served as both an EU trade commissioner and later chief of the World Trade Organization, has dismissed such concerns. He called it “diplomatic paranoia, which can be considered either as a disease or as the heart of the diplomatic profession,” consisting of “seeing that there are plots everywhere against their country, and that it is important to denounce them.”

According to Lamy, current fears about the French presidency are just “a fable,” though deeply rooted in European and French history.

“It is quite revealing that a certain number of so-called commercially liberal countries continue to see France as a protectionist Raminagrobis [a cat creature from Rabelais’ fables], which is an exaggeration,” he said.

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