One year before the European elections, the French president came to Strasbourg to count his allies and convince members of all political groups. However, French ambitions seem to have been revised downward.
Preventing Europe’s divisions while moving forward on several crucial issues was the balancing act that Emmanuel Macron tried in front of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday (17 April).
One year before the European elections, the discussion, which lasted nearly three hours, clarified the European priorities of the French president but also the political positions of different actors.
“I do not belong to any political family here,” Macron reiterated, who has refused to tie himself to the centrist group ALDE since he came to power, despite the repeated veiled invitations and an obviously common ideology.
By leaving the door open, Macron is trying to rally to his cause any European politician motivated by EU reform. His calls for the construction of a “new European sovereignty” and “the protection of European citizens” have been met with acclaim.
“Macron has also come to count his allies, which seem to be within the centre and centre left of the European political spectrum,” said Sébastien Maillard, director of the Jacques Delors Institute in France.
The speech was set within the context of the recent elections in Hungary and Macron did not hesitate to launch into an ode to democracy and the role of the Parliament, while criticising the temptation of anti-liberalism of Viktor Orbán. The way in which he was reelected has been criticised by the OSCE.
“Confronted with autoritarism, the answer is not an authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy,” he said.
His criticism was addressed at Orbán but also at the blind support the Hungarian prime minister enjoys from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), the largest political group in the European Parliament.
Incidentally, the European right has not warmed up much to the French president, although EPP group leader Manfred Weber reluctantly acknowledged his actions.
Some in the EPP, such as Franck Proust, have criticised the president, while others, such as Swede Anna Maria Corazza Bildt or Frenchman Alain Lamassoure have praised his speech, showing potential cracks in the unity of the Parliament’s biggest group.
Ironically, Macron, who is often considered as a right-winger in France, has received a warmer welcome from the Socialists and the Greens, who asked him direct questions but also thanked him for coming to Strasbourg.
Macron: the ideas man
“Without crazy dreams about enlargement, a lot of you wouldn’t be here today,” Macron insisted, saying he supports improved cohesion policy as one of his long-term projects.
France’s priorities are nonetheless coated in realism: instead of a fast and ambitious eurozone reform, which was his priority during the campaign, the French president is now championing the idea of a digital tax.
Socialist MEP Isabelle Thomas thinks that this is somewhat of a cop-out. “It is all good to progress on own resources, but this is the least advanced tax, and it needs to include fiscal evasion of all companies, not only the digital ones.”
As for the next multiannual financial framework (MFF), Macron showed willingness to increase France’s contribution, without going into the specifics.
He also insisted that cohesion funds must be conditional on respecting democratic principles and violently condemned funding is currently used. “They cannot be used to finance fiscal and social dumping,” he said.
After Brexit, the EU will lose 10% of its budget, unless other sources materialise and cohesion funds are being considered as a sacrificial lamb. “His speeches are always beautiful, it’s an ode to Europe, but we fear that this carriage could turn into a pumpkin, like in France,” MEP Thomas warned.
Among his new ideas, the French president acknowledged the mishandling of refugees in France. He suggested a migration agency that could give money to regions and local authorities to take care of refugees.
“Macron has made an interesting speech, but it was not ambitious enough,” said French MEP Karima Delli (Greens/EFA), who is usually quite close to the president.
If those propositions seem less ambitious than the ones he made in September at his landmark speech at the Sorbonne, they have the merit of being on the table now, and that is enough for many European democrats impressed by the oddity that is Emmanuel Macron.
There is still one important partner that needs convincing though: Angela Merkel, and she is already proving to be the reason why French ambitions have been lowered.