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World

France's 'New Boy' Macron a Qualified Hit at First EU Summit

Macron's offers EU devotees new hope

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks during a media conference at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, June 22, 2017, photo: AP/Olivier Matthys
6 months ago

BRUSSELS – French President Emmanuel Macron pledged Thursday to breathe new life into a European Union stung by the departure of Britain and deeply divided over the best way to accommodate refugees

The 39-year-old Macron, who grew up in a united Europe and campaigned on an unabashedly pro-EU platform, promised to forge ahead with Germany to make a bloc soon to be composed of 27 instead of 28 nations stronger and more relevant to citizens.

Macron’s dynamism offers EU devotees new hope. He is pushing at a summit of the bloc’s leaders, his first as head of state, for joint European defense, a joint budget for countries that use the euro and a tougher stance against the U.S. and China on trade.

“Europe is not, to my mind, just an idea. It’s a project, an ambition,” Macron told reporters in Brussels.

His enthusiasm won’t be enough to make Macron’s ambition for the EU real. On the summit’s opening day, Hungary’s prime minister dismissed him as “the new boy” amid tensions over refugees.

Macron’s debut followed a series of reversals for anti-European and anti-migrant parties in elections in Austria, the Netherlands and France, and just a few months before Chancellor Angela Merkel heads to the polls in Germany.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, (C), speaks with British Prime Minister Theresa May, (R), and French President Emmanuel Macron, second left, during a round table meeting at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, June 22, 2017. Photo: AP/Geert Vanden Wijngaert

The specter of a far-right success in Germany, coupled with the departure of heavyweight member Britain, had undermined public confidence and fueled doubts about whether a unified Europe matters to citizens in a world where many feel left behind by globalization.

Macron, who grew up in a globalized economy, warns that Europe will become globally and economically irrelevant if it doesn’t join forces in more spheres, such as defense, and suggests the historic force behind European integration always has been France and Germany.

“We are working hand in hand with Germany,” he said. “When France and Germany disagree, it’s rare that Europe issues advance. So we gain in time and efficiency if we get together.”

But he underlined that a Franco-German partnership was “not about excluding other countries, other member states, on the contrary, it’s about defining positions together.”

Despite the new luster leaders hope to give the European enterprise, deep divisions remain over how best to handle thousands of refugees in Greece and Italy.

Some countries, including Hungary and Poland, have refused to take part in a legally binding scheme to share refugees from southern Europe with other partners.

Macron said in an interview before the summit that countries cannot pick what rules to obey and should face “political consequences” for not respecting those to which the EU has agreed.

“Europe is not a supermarket. Europe is a common destiny. It gets weaker when it allows its principles to be rejected,” he said in the interview with eight European newspapers.

That stance did not go down well with some eastern EU states that have seen tens of thousands of people cross their territories over the last two years.

“The new French president is a new boy,” said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has erected a border fence to keep migrants out. “We’ll have a look at him, get to know him. There are quite a few veterans here, who have been laboring for decades.”

Macron’s “entrance was not very encouraging, because yesterday he thought that the best form of friendship was to kick the Central European countries. That’s not the norm here,” Orban said.

Still a child when Germany reunited, the Soviet Union collapsed and European nations decided to share their currencies, Macron hasn’t lived through the European conflicts and tensions that other leaders experienced firsthand.

While well-versed in European history — he is fond of quoting ancient philosophers — he is a forward-looking leader who sees no alternative to more European unity.

Germany’s Merkel supported Macron on the issue, albeit more subtly.

“This is not the day for threats,” she said, but noted the immigration matter must be discussed and that the EU was a “community of values.”

The perceived lack of solidarity from other EU nations has hurt Italy and Greece. Around 160,000 refugees were to be relocated from the countries to other EU nations over two years. At current rates, fewer than 40,000 will be moved.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani — an Italian — said “the current system of burden-sharing has failed.”

“A handful of countries of first entry are required to deal with most of those (asylum) applications. It is unfair that they should be left to shoulder this responsibility alone,” he told the leaders.

LORNE COOK
ANGELA CHARLTON

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