Macron sinks teeth into EU taboos in forward-looking speech

French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech on the European Union at the Sorbonne University in Paris, September 2017. [Ludovic Marin/ EPA]

Treaty change, agricultural policy and debt: French President Emmanuel Macron attacked a number of previously untouchable EU taboos during a speech focused on reform, sharing ambitious proposals for Europe’s future with university students. EURACTIV France reports.

“Europe is an idea driven forward by optimists and visionaries […] Living together in harmony was the ideal of Robert de Sorbon,” the founder of the university that bares his name, insisted France’s president on Tuesday evening (26 September).

Macron gave his speech against a blue backdrop covered in stars in front of a group of equally starry-eyed students of the prestigious Parisian university.

He was also watched by former MEPs Daniel Cohn-Bendit and Sylvie Goulard, who have both acted as mentors to France’s head of state when it comes to European matters, while he delivered his 14-page discourse on his vision for Europe up to 2024.

It was a symbolic choice of date, given that Paris will host the Olympic Games that summer and the next European legislative cycle will begin anew.

Macron insisted that Europe has grown complacent under the defensive wing of the United States and by mimicking its pursuit of economic growth. He added that he wants to reverse this trend quickly.

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“Do not be afraid” of breaking taboos

Contrary to the often muted and dour atmosphere that comes with discussions about European issues, the French president went on the offensive, quoting the advice of the late pope, John Paul II : “Do not be afraid.” Macron urged those listening to not shirk away from the idea of changing Europe.

France’s young leader added that the word “unspeakable” does not have the same meaning in Germany as in French, explaining that for his country, it means changing the treaties and for Germany it means addressing the issue of debt.

“I want to assure you: the two are both possible,” Macron insisted, suggesting that both issues have to be put on the table at democratic conventions in the lead-up to Europe’s 2019 elections, in order to give those votes more meaning.

Brexit normally elicits a modest and restrained tone from Europe’s leaders out of “respect from the decision of the British people”, but Macron did not mince his words, asserting that “In a few years, if they want, the United Kingdom could find its place… in this reformed and simplified EU that I’m proposing.”

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“Old parties can no longer have a monopoly on Europe”

“I can’t imagine that the United Kingdom could not find its place,” he said, even adding that the EU could adopt the UK’s stamp-duty model as an EU-wide financial transactions tax.

Macron acknowledged the role Brussels plays in the day-to-day lives of citizens but warned that the EU is currently “too weak, too slow and too inefficient” and there needs to be an end to the “European civil war” on budgetary and regulatory matters.

He also paid tribute to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker from some of his proposals and the work his deputy, Frans Timmermans, has done on protecting the rule of law in Poland and Hungary.

Macron also took aim at Europe’s traditional parties, whose members no longer agree on European matters, calling on them to support the idea of transnational lists for the 2019 elections. He praised their support for the Spitzenkandidaten process which was adopted for the 2014 iteration.

“These old parties can no longer have a monopoly on Europe. We need to ask the people for their opinion,” he added, in a direct broadside at the European Parliament’s two largest groups, the European Peoples’ Party and the Socialists and Democrats Group.

Macron also did not pull any punches when he spoke about breaches of the rule of law in Poland. “If the government does not want it, then students have to organise these democratic conventions in Poland,” the president suggested to a Polish student in the audience, calling on the continent’s youth to “resist against those who want to divert you away from Europe”.

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Tangible ideas for Europe

As promised, Macron revealed a dozen or so proposals on the future of the EU. These included military exchanges between all member states, the introduction of a financial transaction tax that would fund development aid, a minimum carbon price of between €25 and €30 per tonne and a carbon border tax.

More controversially still, the French leader called for a revision of the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) in order to bring about a significant agricultural transition.

On digital issues, Macron suggested setting up an EU agency dedicated to “disruptive innovation”, as well as funding artificial intelligence research to a far greater degree.

Greater harmonisation of tax policies also figures heavily in Macron’s vision. Tech giants like Facebook and Apple can expect to be taxed where they make their money rather than where they are registered if the French president gets his wish.

Respect for these criteria would also be linked to EU solidarity funds.

He also proposed setting a target for education that would mean one in every two Europeans spend six months abroad during their studies and that everyone should learn at least two languages. Macron also suggested setting up some 20 staunchly European universities and harmonising secondary school diplomas across the bloc.

Finally, he argued in favour of transnational lists determining half of all MEPs in the 2024 elections, following on from 2019, when he envisages a nominal 73 lawmakers being chosen this way.

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German team-up

Macron will need the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel if his plans are to bear fruit but doubts have been raised about the chances of that after her CDU leader underperformed in this weekend’s federal elections. Complex coalition talks await.

Asked whether the Free Democratic Party of Germany (FDP), a potential future coalition partner of Merkel, would be a hindrance to his plans, given the party has already vetoed any notion of a joint eurozone budget, he replied that he does not want to pool debts from the past but to invest in common European projects using a joint budget.

In a subtle dig at FDP leader Christian Lindner who has already set his “red lines” on a number of economic issues, Macron quipped: “I don’t have red lines, I only have horizons.”

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