French President Emmanuel Macron has escaped protests over fuel prices and tumbling approval ratings at home with a series of state visits that placed Europe at the centre of attention.
Starting a small tour of Europe in Berlin with an address at the Bundestag on Sunday during an event honouring war victims, Macron called for greater European unity and self-confidence to meet future challenges.
In a display of Franco-German friendship, he said Europe must grow stronger and more sovereign and that Germany and France “have the obligation not to let the world slip into chaos and to guide it on the road to peace.”
It is the European idea that he also tried to display during a two-day state visit to Belgium this week.
On Tuesday (20 November), 40 kilometres from Brussels, the French President held a dialogue on Europe with Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel at the Université Catholique de Louvain.
With the European Parliament elections looming next May, the French president called on pro-EU forces to rally and take concrete steps to fend off anti-immigrant, nationalist parties on the rise in several EU member states.
“There is a division emerging in Europe, a fight between those who believe in European solutions and those who no longer believe that it is fundamental,” he told the somewhat 1,000 students in the audience.
Macron did not frame the debate between “progressive” and “populist” forces as he has done in the past, but preferred speaking of “nationalists and demagogues.”
Strongly criticising those who use Brussels as a scapegoat, the French president stressed that all pro-European leaders should be able to highlight the positive impact of the EU instead of taking credit for its achievements.
The EU is not “Brussels”, Macron pointed out, “we are.”
He warned that people seem to have forgotten that Marine Le Pen won the European elections in France in 2014, and that her Rassemblement National party is currently leading the European election race. “But I haven’t,” he said.
Two or three speed Europe
In Louvain-la-Neuve, he pleaded for a “two or three speed Europe”, to allow frontrunners to move towards European integration in the hope that others will follow.
“The big mistake that we have made in the past five to ten years is that we always want to decide everything at 28, maybe tomorrow at 27 after Brexit. This is not true, this has never worked this way,” Macron said.
To illustrate his point, the French President referred to the Schengen area of free movement and the eurozone, as well as to enhanced cooperation on defence, where different EU countries participate.
He also suggested that decisions should no longer need the approval of all EU member states: “I am in favour of changing the treaties, we reach a point where it must be done. We should not be afraid, but we should also keep in mind that whoever is against can no longer block the others.”
Speaking of efforts to put in place a common European defence, the French President said: “We have done more in a year and a half than what has been done since the 1950s”.
There could be “no idea of a united Europe if in a corner of Europe we say ‘we cannot protect you, ask someone else’,” he pleaded.
“We also need a common foreign policy”, agreed Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel.
In the only real exchange between the two heads of state, Michel defended Belgium’s decision to choose the American F-35s fighter jet over a European alternative, a decision which has sparked some resentment between Paris and Brussels.
“France has not made an offer,” Michel reminded, in response to French criticism.
But domestic headaches soon caught up with Macron, as French politics dominated questions from the audience during the debate, which was briefly interrupted by a protester.
When the French President was accused of being in the pocket of the oil lobby, he dropped his good manners. “Being influenced by lobbyists is manifestly incorrect, and anyone who says that is lying,” Macron rebuked.
“If I do not go fast enough with reforms, then I am in the lobbyists’ pocket, and if you struggle for change, you will get criticism from the same group.”