Emmanuel Macron has likened the political divisions in Europe to a civil war and warned against growing illiberalism on the continent.
In his first speech to the European parliament, the French president called for the defence of a European liberal democracy that offered protection of the rights of its minorities, and attacked those who took their countries out of the EU to pursue fairytale “adventures”.
“I am for the most integrated and closest possible relationship after Brexit, and there’s a well-known solution – it’s called EU membership,” he said.
The vast majority of the speech was, however, about the future without the UK, and the need for the 27 other EU member states to be united in opposition to the emergence of the nationalist authoritarian traits of the past.
Without naming the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who recently won a landslide victory after a campaign that played on voters’ fears of immigration, Macron was scathing of politicians who scapegoated migrants.
“There seems to be a certain European civil war: national selfishness and negativity seems to take precedence over what brings us together. There is a fascination with the illiberal, and that is growing all the time,” he told MEPs.
“In the future, we must struggle to defend our ideals … This is a democracy that respects individual minority fundamental rights, which used to be called liberal democracy, and I use that term by choice. The deadly tendency which might lead our continent to the abyss, nationalism, giving up of freedom: I reject the idea that European democracy is condemned to impotence.
“I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers, I don’t want to belong to a generation that’s forgotten its own past,” he said.
Echoing Tony Blair’s 2005 appearance at the European parliament, during which he tackled Nigel Farage head-on to rapturous applause, Macron picked out the Front National for comment.
“You were elected to this assembly by the French people, sir,” the president said. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have come.”
Macron also passionately defended the military strikes by the US, the UK and France last weekend against the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons infrastructure. “Do we sit back, do we defend [human] rights by saying: rights are for us, principles are for us, and realities are for others? No, no!” he said.
The speech was heartily welcomed by Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, but received a lukewarm response from others, including Manfred Weber, the German MEP who leads the European People’s party, within which Orbán’s MEPs sit.
Weber told Macron that Europe welcomed his election, but people should not be divided into good and bad Europeans.
“Some people call this the old Europe. I call this the democratic Europe,” Weber said, gesturing to the ranks of MEPs representing parties ranging from Communists to the far right.
In a thinly veiled reference to Russia, Macron said the EU was battling against “authoritarian powers … with a clear strategy to call into question the multilateral system”.
“We are seeing authoritarianism all around us and the response is not authoritarian democracy, but the authority of democracy,” he added.
The French president also claimed the true European political identity differed from that of “our American ally”, which was “rejecting multilateralism, free trade and climate change”.
He repeated his calls for reform of the eurozone, a digital tax, re-engagement with the European voters ahead of the European parliamentary elections next year, and moves to protect the continent’s sovereignty in areas ranging from copyright to data. He also counselled against allowing the accession of the Balkan states to the EU until the bloc had reformed.
Despite the generally warm reception, the French president’s ambitious plans for an “in-depth transformation” of Europe, unveiled in major speeches over the past year in Athens and at the Sorbonne, have run into stronger headwinds than he might have expected.
Macron envisaged a strong new partnership between Paris and Berlin to breathe new life into the EU, mooting big new initiatives ranging from far-reaching eurozone reforms to changes in the way the commission president and MEPs are chosen and a crowd-pleasing tax on tech multinationals.
All are bogged down in the slow-moving realities of European politics. His ideas for some integration and mutual support among eurozone members in exchange for stricter economic management have been hit by Angela Merkel’s post-election weakness and opposition from within her CDU party to more risk-sharing.
Reforms to the EU’s political process have run foul of assorted national interests, while Macron’s projected European digital tax on the revenues – rather than the profits – of technology multinationals has proved unpopular in countries including Ireland and Luxembourg.
He visits Berlin on Thursday for four hours of talks with Merkel on the full range of of European issues, during which he will hope for more concrete progress. But he is fast learning that reforming Europe looks set to be even more of a challenge than reforming France.
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