TOPSHOT - French President Emmanuel Macron speaks before the European Parliament on April 17, 2018 in the eastern French city of Strasbourg.
Macron addressed the European Parliament for the first time in a bid to shore up support for his ambitious plans for post-Brexit reforms of the EU. French leader wants big changes in the face of growing scepticism about the European project, but there has been a marked lack of enthusiasm from Berlin to Budapest. Macron's speech to MEPs in the eastern French city of Strasbourg is part of a charm offensive ahead of European Parliament elections in May 2019, the first after Britain's departure.

French President Emmanuel Macron called on MEPs to defend Europe’s “unique identity” in the face of growing authoritarianism in the continent, while reinforcing his plans to speed up reform of the EU.

In his first speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg since becoming French leader almost a year ago, Mr Macron rejected the idea that the rise of “illiberal” governments meant that European democracy was now “consigned to impotence”. 

His address to MEPs follows Viktor Orban’s third consecutive victory as Hungarian prime minister after a campaign that was strong on anti-migrant and Eurosceptic policies. Brussels is also locked in a long-running conflict with Poland’s rightwing government over the rule of law.

“I want to take the firm choice to defend democracy,” said Mr Macron, who defeated the populist far-right leader Marine Le Pen to win last year’s presidential vote “I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its own past.”

France is among a group of countries demanding that tougher conditions are placed on central and eastern European governments if they flout EU rules.

The French president also used his 30-minute speech to continue his drive for closer European integration, including for nations to contribute more to a bigger EU funding pot after the UK departs from the bloc.

“No ambition level must be too high [for the EU budget]. We must add new ambitions and that’s what France will be doing in the coming months,” Mr Macron said.

“We need a road map that gives a staged approach to banking union and a fiscal capacity that allows for convergence in the eurozone,” he added.

The French plans have ignited opposition from conservative German MPs who fear their taxpayers will be forced to pay for failing banks or governments in other parts of Europe.

Reacting to the speech, Alexander Dobrindt, a senior figure in the CSU, Bavarian sister party of Ms Merkel’s CDU, said in Berlin. “I have absolutely no reason to make Macron’s personal happiness my political programme”.

Mr Macron shied away from explicitly criticising other governments for blocking his reform agenda.

But Udo Bullmann, leader of the parliament’s socialist bloc, said Mr Macron’s plans were being stymied by Ms Merkel’s “Madame Non” attitude and “mini-Schäubles” — a reference to former German finance chief Wolfgang Schäuble — who rejected his ideas for a European Monetary Fund or joint eurozone finance minister.

The grand coalition deal signed recently between Ms Merkel’s bloc and the centre-left SPD commits Berlin to greater European integration.

Lars Klingbeil, SPD general secretary, said his party would be pushing Ms Merkel for a more integrationist policies. “We want a different EU policy, and that means bidding farewell to the austerity politics of Wolfgang Schäuble. We want more investment,” he said.

“For that to happen the government has to give clear impulse together with France, even if we don’t agree on every detail,” he added.

Mr Macron was speaking ahead of his first “democratic convention” with European citizens — an initiative designed to revive debate ahead of next May’s European Parliament elections. 

Mr Macron said he firmly rejected the idea that citizens do not want “more Europe”. 

“People haven’t given up on Europe. We have to make European democracy live and come alive,” he said.

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