French President Emmanuel Macron sketched a plan to “rebuild” the European Union through wider democracy and public accountability at the start of a two-day visit to Greece on Thursday (7 September).
Choosing a symbol of ancient Athenian democracy – Pnyx Hill – for his speech, Macron said he intended to present fellow European leaders with a “roadmap” to fix Europe for the next decade after Germany’s 24 September election.
The French president said more democratic institutions would help respond to a populist wave which has seen the rise of far-right leaders such as Marine Le Pen, whom he defeated in May, and helped fuel the successful Brexit campaign which led to Britain’s vote to leave the EU.
“We share a history and a destiny…we must defend this heritage,” Macron said, with the brightly lit Acropolis as his backdrop.
Macron, a fervent Europhile, warned that the continent would face its demise without a radical overhaul of its governance.
“In order not to be ruled by bigger powers such as the Chinese and the Americans, I believe in a European sovereignty that allows us to defend ourselves and exist,” Macron said at the top of the hill of Pnyx, with the spectacular backdrop of the Parthenon temple in the sunset.
“Our generation can choose to (do this)…we must find the strength to rebuild Europe,” said the 39-year-old centrist, making his first visit to Greece as president.
“Are you afraid of this European ambition?”
EU-wide ‘democratic conventions’ in 2018
The proposals, which formed part of Macron’s election campaign platform earlier this year, would be submitted to European citizens early next year for a six-month debate.
These debates – so-called ‘democratic conventions’, which he proposed during his French presidential campaign – would help lay the foundations of Europe for the next 10 to 15 years.
“I don’t want a new European treaty discussed behind closed doors, in the corridors of Brussels, Berlin or Paris,” Macron said.
Proposals already floated by Macron include cross-state candidate tickets for the next European Parliament elections, scheduled for 2019. Those pan-EU representatives elected by all of the EU’s citizens would take Britain’s 78 seats in the European Parliament after Brexit.
Another flagship proposal is to give more democratic legitimacy for the eurozone.
“Let us put together a eurozone parliament which would enable the creation of democratic responsibility,” the French president said.
At present, economically weak states such as Greece decry the powers wielded by eurozone finance ministers to determine long-term fiscal policy. Their body, the Eurogroup, is not elected.
IMF must show ‘good faith’ to stay on
Earlier Thursday, with Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras at his side, Macron delighted his hosts by warning the International Monetary Fund to refrain from demanding cuts beyond those already agreed, in upcoming talks.
“The IMF’s position should be in good faith and without added requirements,” Macron said as Greece prepares to reopen reform talks in return for another tranche of bailout cash.
Greece’s third rescue programme, currently financially supported by EU states alone, runs to August 2018.
The IMF has said it will only contribute to the programme if EU creditors take further steps to lighten Greece’s debt load, which has yet to happen over strenuous objections by Germany.
Macron on Wednesday (6 September) bemoaned that the EU had to turn to outside assistance in the first place to rescue Greece in 2010, noting that this reflected a “lack of confidence” between European member states and institutions.
“I don’t think that having the IMF supervise European programmes is a good method… the credibility and sovereignty of Europe justified doing things differently,” Macron said.
Macron said European rescues were not the IMF’s “primary vocation” and that in Greece’s case, European ministers spend an excessive amount of time agonising over growth forecasts 25 years into the future, at the global lender’s behest.
“If you could tell me my own country’s growth forecast in three years I’d be happy,” he quipped.
European Monetary Fund
Greece, on the receiving end of two multi-billion euro rescues in which the IMF has been a part since 2010, has frequently complained of the Washington-based lender’s demands for fiscal cuts and labour reform.
But Germany, in particular, has insisted on retaining the IMF, at least in a supervisory role.
In the long run, Berlin has insisted on putting in place a European Monetary Fund. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble is said to be currently working on a proposal to transform the eurozone’s rescue fund, the European Stability Mechanism (ESM), into a fully-fledged EMF with more powers to support weaker members.
The idea is seen with scepticism in Paris, however. “Relaunching investment, yes, but individualising decision making in a structure outside the European Commission, no,” sources close to the president have said before Macron’s departure for Athens.
In his speech, Macron sought to build bridges with Berlin, saying he backed Germany’s idea of a European Monetary Fund (EMF) to counter economic shocks in eurozone member states.
But he stressed the ultimate goal of deeper integration should remain a eurozone budget and greater financial solidarity towards the bloc’s more vulnerable members.
“We should head towards a European Monetary Fund but this should in no way be mixed up with a (eurozone) budget,” Macron told Greek President Prokopis Pavlopoulos.
Turkey “essential” on migration, terror
Macron also had a word of caution to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, saying the EU had to avoid any sharp break with Turkey.
“I wish to avoid a rupture because (Turkey) is an essential partner in many crises we jointly face, specifically the migration challenge and the terrorist threat,” Macron told Greece’s Kathimerini newspaper.
Merkel said over the weekend that she would ask the EU to call off membership talks with Turkey, adding “I don’t see them ever joining.”
The EU and Turkey last year sealed an agreement which has helped to stem the flow of hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants into Greece.
Ankara has threatened to rescind the deal at times when tensions have flared with Brussels over human rights.