Europe might have a new leader to replace Germany's Angela Merkel, if French President Emmanuel Macron gets his way.
With the German Chancellor holed up in Berlin, attempting to piece together a coalition after an underwhelming election victory on Sunday, Macron strode forcefully into the gap on Tuesday afternoon, unveiling a dramatic new plan to overhaul the 28-member European Union, a role that French leaders have for years largely ceded to Germany.
In a key two-hour speech at the Sorbonne University in Paris, Macron laid out a detailed blueprint for how to overhaul the E.U., including knitting the continent together far more closely, with joint military interventions and intelligence sharing. He called for Europe-wide rules on energy, climate change, and financial transaction taxes, and for it to up aid for Africa and the Middle East, in an effort to stop the mammoth influx of migrants sneaking across the Mediterranean.
"We have been wasting our time in a European civil war of words," Macron said, in his most impassioned speech since winning the presidency last May. "We should be thinking of a way to build a stronger Europe."
Evidently, Macron sees a prized moment to remake Europe according to his own vision. For weeks, he had said he would wait until after the Germany elections last Sunday to announce his E.U. plan, since the French-German partnership is regarded as key to shaping the union. But when it became clear Merkel faced difficult coalition talks, Macron seized the moment.
"Why now, when the German government has not yet been formed?" said an unnamed "Elysée source," in a long text message sent to journalists by Macron's press office, shortly before his speech. "It is France's responsibility to propose, to give its vision, in this period, not after—then it will be too late."
This "vision" for a more powerful E.U. comes in the midst of fierce political battles in almost every member country over how big a role the bloc should play in regular citizens' lives. In Britain, that debate led to the shock decision in a June 2016 referendum to leave the E.U. completely. Its exit, the first in the E.U.'s history, has rocked European politics, hugely boosting anti-E.U. voters while deeply worrying others.
The perception that the E.U. leadership in Brussels is overriding national concerns has inspired a sharp rise in nationalist movements over the past year in both France and Germany; far-right leader Marine Le Pen won one-third of the votes in the run-off election against Macron last May, on an argument to take France out of the E.U. And in Germany, the far-right anti-Europe party Alternative for Germany, or AfD, won 12.6% of the votes in last Sunday's elections, nearly triple its standing from four years ago.
By contrast, Macron from the start has cast himself as a fervent pro-European, even arriving at his victory celebration outside the Louvre Museum in Paris on May 7 to the sound of the E.U. anthem "Ode to Joy," rather than "La Marseillaise."
Macron made clear on Tuesday that the wave of nationalism across Europe represents a deep peril, on a continent that has seen devastation and bloodshed. In the Sorbonne auditorium, packed with French officials, students and journalists, he said many Europeans had forgotten the lessons from the two world wars, which crippled Europe during the first half of the last century, and killed millions—and which ultimately led to the formation of a common European market, and the European Union.
Many, he said, were now "falling victim to some ideas… hunkering down behind a false notion of sovereignty," he said. "The sad, dark passions of Europe are still here, with us, reaffirming themselves."
The solution, in Macron's opinion, lies in much closer integration of the E.U.'s patchwork of nations, which range from tiny economies like Montenegro and Moldova to giant global powers like Germany and France. Macron, a former Rothschild investment banker, said what is needed is a single budget for the 19 countries using the Euro currency, with one financial authority. That idea that has been floated for years in Europe, but has faced strong opposition by countries, including Germany and many in France, who fear that the rich E.U. nations might be saddled paying the bills for poorer members.
Macron also has domestic reasons to bid for a role as Europe's most important leader. His new party, La République En Marche, dominates the French parliament, making his dramatic labor reforms virtually assured of a smooth passage in the next few weeks. His nemesis Le Pen, who cast Macron as an elite globalist, faces bitter splits in her National Front party, over her push to have France ditch the Euro currency.
French politicians carefully followed Macron's speech and reacted quickly. Florian Philippot, who broke away from the National Front as Le Pen's deputy last week and founded a new anti-E.U. party called The Patriots, said on Facebook that Macron's appearance was "a speech by a man who has no more ambition for France," who wanted to be "the president of the Republic of Europe."
He certainly attempted to speak on its behalf, even hinting that Britain might perhaps rejoin the bloc if it became more effective and less bureaucratic, as he envisioned. "In this revamped, simplified European Union I can't imagine that Britain could not find its place," he said.
But Macron made it clear he had little tolerance for those who sought to break ties with the E.U. "It is a lie that hunkering down in your own country is ever going to be a successful path," he said. "The only path is our path: Refounding a sovereign, united and democratic Europe." Macron sees his grand plan as becoming reality in 2024—the year of the Summer Olympics in Paris.
By then, he said, European medal-winners would hopefully stand on the podium and hear both their national anthem, and the "Ode to Joy."