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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 19 June 2018

France's Macron warns Europe against 'authoritarianism'

German scepticism, fears over migrants and clashes over EU expansion could thwart Emmanuel Macron’s vision for a more integrated eurozone

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks before the European Parliament in Strasbourg.Frederick Florin / AFP
French President Emmanuel Macron speaks before the European Parliament in Strasbourg.Frederick Florin / AFP

French President Emmanuel Macron warned Europe on Tuesday against the temptations of "authoritarianism" after Eurosceptic populists won elections in Hungary and Italy, and as Brussels confronts Poland's right-wing government over the rule of law.

Mr Macron, 40, whose authority is being tested by striking rail workers at home and Syrian defiance abroad, called on the bloc to build the European Union as a bulwark for liberal democracy against a disorderly and dangerous world.

"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," the president said in his first speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg.

"I want to belong to a generation that will defend European sovereignty because we fought to obtain it. And I will not give in to any kind of fixation on authoritarianism," he added.

Mr Macron's election last year, defeating the far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and his ardent pro-Europeanism, made him the poster boy for those aiming for a revived post-Brexit EU to battle the challenges of populism.

Macron said he was concerned by the growing sense of "doubt" in several European countries in the wake of a shock 2016 Brexit vote that created divisions in the EU.

"There seems to be a sort of European civil war. There is a fascination with the illiberal and it's growing all the time," Mr Macron told MEPs in the eastern French city.

His speech comes just after Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a crushing re-election victory. Mr Orban regularly clashes with Brussels.

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Mr Macron’s address was part of a charm offensive ahead of European Parliament elections in May 2019, the first after Britain's departure from the EU. He will need the support of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to boost flagging support for his Eurozone plans, however.

Later this week, Mr Macron travels to Berlin for talks with Mrs Merkel, whose conservative CDU party pushed back on Monday against plans for deeper eurozone integration, including a separate eurozone budget and the expansion of the EU's bailout fund.

Any reforms have to be "in the European and in the German interest," CDU secretary-general Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told reporters.

The French president’s trip to Germany will come at a sensitive time, with Paris and Berlin trying to find common ground ahead of a key EU summit in June. Conservative supporters of Mrs Merkel are pushing back against giving Brussels more power that could cost German taxpayers' money.

Mr Macron had a lengthy EU wish list to share with MEPs on Tuesday, including a new tax on the digital economy to help finance the European Union budget. While he didn't offer details, Mr Macron has called previously for taxing internet giants.

He also said France is ready to increase its own contribution to the EU budget and insisted European countries should work on harmonising fiscal systems and tax levels.

On the thorny topic of asylum seekers, Mr Macron proposed the creation of a European fund for communities that take in refugees in a bid to tackle one of the most politically toxic issues facing the bloc. EU leaders are set to adopt preliminary French-backed plans for eurozone reforms and for an overhaul of its troubled asylum system in June, but there is still much work to do.

On the environmental front, Mr Macron said he will push for an EU carbon tax to fight against climate change and protect companies taking action to reduce their climate impact.

In an interview before Mr Macron's speech, British MEP Nigel Farage challenged Mr Macron's vision of a more integrated EU, advising the French leader to "re-evaluate” his plans.

“When you’re in an EU centralist hole, stop digging," Mr Farage said. Mr “Macron obviously doesn’t yet understand that the future of Europe will be Eurosceptic.”

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker praised the French president's commitment to the EU, however.

“I want to express my emotion and friendship, when I hear the French president expressing himself in the way that he has. The real France is back,” Mr Juncker told the European Parliament.

Mr Juncker cautioned against too great a focus on the Franco-German partnership, however. The former Luxembourg premier noted that, once Britain leaves, there will still be 27 member states in the Union.

Mr Juncker also set up another a possible clash with France and other EU states when he said the EU needs to accept new members from the Western Balkans to avoid the risk of a new war there. While France wants the EU to improve its internal governance before opening up to new members, the European Commission is pushing for the EU to expand into a region still scarred by 1990s ethnic wars and by a reputation for lawlessness.

"If we do not open up to countries in that highly complicated and tragic region, and if we do not open up a European perspective to them, we will see war returning to that area as we saw in the 1990s," Mr Juncker said.

Poland, Italy and Austria are among other EU countries in favour of stepping up efforts to open the bloc to the region, which has seen growing Russian and Chinese influence.

Mrs Merkel is due to address the European Parliament in November.