Macron wakes European hive

French president's open letter stirs up debate on future

Photo: EPA The French president delivers a speech during the closing session of the Intelligence College in Europe meeting at the foreign ministry in Paris, 5 March.

In a letter published in newspapers in all 28 EU countries on 4 March, French President Emmanuel Macron calls on European voters to use the upcoming European Parliament election to reject nationalism and support a stronger EU, to regain control of their future, escape the trap of the status quo and resignation, and make the European project meaningful.

Macron encourages them to chart together the road to renewal because Europe has never been in graver danger due to the “corrosive, continent-wide onslaught of right-wing populist, nationalist and xenophobic forces”.

Proposing a raft of new policies and institutions to implement them, the French president lays out his vision for the EU. He invites European peoples to rethink the EU political project, saying even changes to the bloc's governing treaties should not be taboo. Macron targets Brexit as a symbol of the European crisis, but his real message is meant for the eastern European countries, where a rising electoral support for the far-right is observed over the past years, as exemplified by Estonia this past weekend. Most analysts note that by addressing European citizens directly in this unprecedented for the EU move, Macron actually seeks to position himself as a pro-Europe champion mostly for the benefit of the French voters. Others stress that his proposal for a supra-national control by Brussels, such as his idea for a European Agency for the Protection of Democracies, is exactly the reason why so many people across Europe are dissatisfied and disillusioned by the EU. These observers point to Macron's lack of awareness for people's wishes and the zeitgeist.

What does Macron offer to Member States' citizens? First, he advises them to never forget that the European project brought peace, prosperity and freedom to a continent devastated by war; to not view Europe simply as a market, a place to do business. “What country can act on its own in the face of aggressive strategies by the major powers? Who can claim to be sovereign, on their own, in the face of the digital giants? How would we resist the crises of financial capitalism without the euro, which is a force for the entire European Union?” the French president asks rhetorically. He believes that the European “civilisation unites, frees and protects us” and that “the trap is in the lie and the irresponsibility that can destroy it”. He proposes common border force and a European asylum office, strict control obligations and European solidarity to which each country will contribute under the authority of a European Council for Internal Security. The same standards should apply to defence, he writes in his letter to Europeans. As an entity in the vanguard of progress, Europe “needs to drive forward a project of convergence rather than competition”. Europe, where social security was created, needs to introduce a social shield for all workers, guaranteeing the same pay in the same workplace, and a minimum European wage appropriate to each country and discussed collectively every year, the French president believes.

Getting back on track with progress also concerns spearheading the ecological cause. “The EU needs to set its target - zero carbon by 2050 and pesticides halved by 2025 - and adapt its policies accordingly … (including measures) to improve our food controls and, to counter the lobby threat, independent scientific assessment of substances hazardous to the environment and health,” Macron says. He also touches on job-creation policy and prioritising funding for innovations.

Reactions to his letter were quick to come. Of course, the pro-Europe camp supported him. German Chancellor Angela Merkel highlighted his willingness to make changes to the European treaties as part of a reform of the EU. “An engaged debate about how we envision Europe's future is good for European democracy,” German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said in comments published by the Tagesspiegel. EC President Jean-Claude Juncker expectedly welcomed President Macron's “significant contribution to European debate”.

Nationalist-conservative leaders of Poland and Hungary welcomed Macron's call for far-reaching EU reforms, while voicing dissent on parts of it. Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki said his government would back only those parts of Macron's proposal that are in the country's interest. In Budapest, PM Viktor Orban's spokesman tweeted that the initiative “could mark the beginning of a serious European debate,” but added that “in the details, of course, we have differences of views”. Finish PM Juha Sipila said that he supports Macron's proposal for a bloc with more “security, sustainable economic growth and ambitious climate policy,” noting, however, that the people need to see that the “EU is capable of making decisions and realising them”. But the European Green Party slammed Macron's initiative, arguing that “he has not been successful in convincing French citizens that he understands their concerns”.

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