French President Emmanuel Macron issued a call to Europeans on Tuesday not to retreat into nationalism but to build the European Union as a bulwark for liberal democracy against a disorderly and dangerous world.
Addressing the European Parliament in the French city of Strasbourg, the 40-year-old head of state won a standing ovation from most lawmakers after condemning the rise of “illiberal democracies” even within the EU. Nationalist MEPs from France, Britain and elsewhere sat in silence, however.
“In the face of authoritarianism, the response is not authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy,” Macron said, in a clear reference to the newly re-elected Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and to Poland’s ruling party.
“Selfish nationalism” was gaining ground, Macron warned, referring to an atmosphere of “civil war” in Europe.
But it was an illusion, he argued, to say a return to national sovereignty at the expense of shared EU powers would provide the reassurance voters wanted in a world of mass migration, authoritarian powers — referring to nations such as Russia and China — and powerful multinational corporations.
“We need a sovereignty stronger than our own,” he said.
Far-right lawmaker Florian Philippot, a former National Front member, accused Macron of humiliating France’s historic statehood by playing to an audience of unrepresentative European elites.
Macron accused nationalist leaders of offering a “game of fools” in responding to voters’ concerns about the globalised economy by offering an illusion of a return to national power.
“We must hear the anger of Europe’s peoples today,” he said. “They need a new project. Those who trade on that anger are risking nationalisms tearing Europe apart.”
Calling for fellow EU leaders to follow his example in launching a public dialogue on Europe’s future, Macron said the EU required reform to strengthen what he called “European sovereignty” in the world. He volunteered that France was ready to pay more into the EU budget as Britain leaves — on condition that the Union reforms in ways that France wants.
With a little over a year until the next elections to the European Parliament, he lamented the fact that fewer than half of EU citizens bothered to vote in previous such ballots.
Macron ran through his wish list for deeper EU integration as long sceptical Britain prepares to leave next March. This included new taxation of digital businesses, more support for refugees, closer cooperation in defence and a stronger common approach to running the EU’s single currency.
On the euro, he faces an uphill struggle in convincing his key allies in Germany, where conservative supporters of German Chancellor Angela Merkel are pushing back against giving Brussels more power that could cost German taxpayers’ money.
Macron was speaking at the invitation of the European Parliament, which has asked leaders of all the member states to give their views on the EU’s future following Brexit.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, speaking after Macron, cautioned against too great a focus on the Franco-German partnership or “motor” that lies at the heart of the EU project. The former Luxembourg premier noted that, once Britain leaves, there will still be 27 member states in the Union.
However, he won loud applause in declaring his enthusiasm for the way Macron, after his surprise election a year ago, has put strengthening the EU at the heart of French policy after years in which Paris appeared to struggle for influence.
“The real France is back,” Juncker declared. “Tomorrow’s history is being written today.”
Replying to other criticisms from members of the parliament, Macron delivered an emotional justification of France’s role with Britain and the United States in bombing Syria following a suspected chemical attack on a rebel-held area. Suggestions the strikes defied international law would not, he said, prevent France from acting to protect those on the ground facing banned weaponry.