France’s new President Emmanuel Macron heads to his first EU summit pledging to breathe new life into the bloc after Britain’s shock Brexit decision and to bolster European defences in the face of Donald Trump’s “America First” policy.
The 39-year-old takes his place among fellow European Union leaders in Brussels flush from emphatic electoral victories at home, although his post-election honeymoon was upset this week by a high-level cabinet reshuffle that saw the departure of his justice minister Francois Bayrou, a key ally.
Macron was quick to bond with the doyenne of the EU, Germany’s Angela Merkel, making a point of visiting her on his maiden foreign trip the day after his May 7 election.
Early this month, Brussels unveiled a Franco-German blueprint for the creation of a European defence fund with an annual budget of 5.5 billion euro ($6.1 billion).
Macron’s office said Paris and Berlin, traditionally the twin engines of European integration, hoped their partners would sign off on the defence plan at the two-day summit.
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The idea for the fund, which would finance joint military hardware projects including drones as well as pooled research and development, is to help Europe stand alone as a global military power in the face of US President Trump’s “America First” policy.
Trump berated his European partners on military spending at a raucous NATO summit in Brussels last month.
Macron has called for a permanent European defence headquarters that would plan and monitor defence operations in close cooperation with NATO command centres in the 22 countries that are both EU and NATO members.
Merkel, who herself faces elections in September, said the two core European powers would work to give “new momentum” to the Franco-German axis – whose hand is strengthened by Britain’s shock Brexit decision last year.
On Tuesday, she said she was prepared to consider additional Macron proposals, which include a finance minister and parliament for the eurozone, “if the circumstances are right”.
“We could also consider a euro-budget if it is clear that we are really strengthening the structure of the economy and doing sensible things,” she added, backing another suggestion by the French leader.
But Merkel’s support comes at a price: she will expect Macron to adhere more closely to the EU’s Stability Pact budget rules for countries in the eurozone.
Paris already on notice from the EU Commission that France is on course to overshoot its deficit limit once again in 2017.
The macro-economic straitjacket was all too familiar to Macron’s predecessor Francois Hollande, whose attempts to comply helped make the Socialist leader one of the most unpopular French presidents in the postwar era.
During his electoral campaign, Macron put forward ideas for reforming the eurozone, noting that the 19-nation currency bloc cannot go on as it is if it wants to avoid falling prey to protest and populism.
“We need Europe, so we will remake it,” Macron said on the campaign trail. “I will be the president of the awakening of our European ambitions.”
With the European Union under attack from eurosceptics such as his presidential rival Marine Le Pen, Macron made support of the EU the cornerstone of his campaign.
In contrast, the far-right Le Pen, whom he defeated by a 20-point margin in May, had vowed to scrap the euro and call a referendum on EU membership.
The EU summit will be the third top-level international meeting for Macron after a NATO gathering and a Group of Seven summit in Sicily.
The young new leader, a former Rothschild banker and economy minister, has impressed with self-assured appearances, including staring down Trump in a high-profile handshake.
“There are pretty high expectations among his partners (but) the wind is at his back,” said Francois Heisbourg, president of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.
A senior EU diplomat told AFP in Brussels that Macron was in a line of French presidents going back six decades who have “promised reforms and a total revamp”.
He said if Macron succeeds, “the Franco-German engine will start running, and running very fast.”
But he warned: “If the engine works too well, it is not always good for the EU … Let’s hope Paris and Berlin know how to control their speed.”