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27 September 2017

In Emmanuel Macron’s speech, Brexit was the past and Europe the future

The French president's ambitious vision has been helped by Britain's EU exit, but now his ally Angela Merkel may struggle to join in.

By Pauline Bock

The EU? Too weak, too slow, too inefficient, according to Emmanuel Macron – so of course, he’s planning on reforming it all.

The French president presented his project for the “refoundation of Europe” yesterday in Paris. The speech, held at the Sorbonne University and streamed live on Facebook, mirrored Theresa May’s in Florence. For two hours, Macron detailed his ambitious, optimistic vision for a more co-operative and reformed European Union. Brexit was barely mentioned: the EU, Macron implied, has already moved on.

“Brits have decided to leave us, freeing 73 MEP seats,” he said. He then offered the EU a “choice”: to allocate the seats equally between member states, or to use them as “the European response to Brexit”, a “transnational list” where everyone, everywhere in Europe would vote for the same elected officials.

“I dare you!” Macron added, noting that 2019 would be both the year of Brexit and thus of new European elections.

Macron’s dream of a “sovereign, united, democratic” Europe did not fully exclude the UK – he claimed that in a few years, the exiting country could “find the place that is its own, if it wishes it” in the reformed EU – but in no way does it need it. Macron is talking about the future; Brexit, in the eyes of Europe, is a thing of the past.

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Four months into his presidency, Macron is already the champion of reforms at home – after the labour law, he plans on rethinking pensions, railway and unemployment benefits. Now he is laying out a new European Union, too. He is advocating for more Europe-wide co-operation on international issues such as defence (offering to send EU soldiers to serve in other countries’ armies), immigration (creation of a EU office for asylum seekers) and terrorism (creation of a EU prosecutor into criminality and terrorism). He also called for an EU-wide financial transaction tax to fund development aid and a carbon tax on imports, as well as the launch of a EU agency for innovation.

He was quieter on the Eurozone, although he called for its budget to be funded in parts by member states’ domestic corporate tax (he did not, however, mention any figure). “I am not ashamed of the Eurozone,” Macron said. “I don’t have red lines, only horizons.”

But his horizon is currently obscured by the recent German elections, where Angela Merkel was re-elected as Chancellor but now needs the support of the Greens and the liberals of the Free Democratic Party to form a coalition government.

Merkel may have backed Macron’s European vision in the past, but the FDP draws its red line at the reinforcement of the Eurozone. The FDP leader, Christian Lindner, claimed to Die Welt that Macron had said: “If Merkel forms an alliance with the liberals, I’m dead”. Both his measures on more Eurozone integration and financial transaction tax would be fiercely opposed by the FDP, so plans for a European budget would be off the cards.

In his speech, Macron suggested that Angela Merkel’s response would not be “withdrawal and shyness” but “audacity and sense of history”. He invited the Chancellor to “sign a new European treaty” with him, on 22 January 2018 – the 55th anniversary of the Élysée treaty, signed by Charles de Gaulle and Konrad Adenauer in 1953.

The EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has praised Macron’s “very European” speech. But as always, nothing in Europe happens without Germany. January may be too close a date for Merkel to join in on Macron’s vision, if she is allowed by the FDP to do it at all. Unlike at home, in Europe Macron isn’t an all-powerful ruler. But if someone is to lead the way – cleared by Britain’s timely exit – he will happily volunteer.