French President Emmanuel Macron arrives for an EU summit in Brussels, Thursday, Dec. 13, 2018. EU leaders gathered Thursday for a two-day summit which will center on the Brexit negotiations. (AP Photo/Geert Vanden Wijngaert)
Emmanuel Macron: the French president's initiative takes the form of an address to EU citizens in the opinion pages of newspapers across Europe © AP

Emmanuel Macron has stepped up calls for a more united EU, laying out a series of proposals for a “European renaissance” to fend off resurgent populists expected to score big gains in the bloc’s elections in May.

“Never since the second world war has Europe been so necessary,” he wrote in an address to the “citizens of Europe” to be published on the opinion pages of multiple newspapers on Tuesday. “And yet Europe has never been so much in danger.”

Mr Macron, building on his integrationist speech at the Sorbonne university in Paris in September 2017, outlined further proposals to advance his pro-EU agenda as he lashed out at the “trap” of Brexit.

These included penalties or a ban on companies that failed to adhere to environmental norms, protect online data or pay fair taxes — and preferential treatment for local companies in strategic industries and public procurement “as is done by our American and Chinese competitors”.

Mr Macron also proposed new EU climate and environmental targets: zero net carbon emissions by 2050; a halving of pesticide use by 2025; a European climate bank to manage the transition to renewable energies; and a European health force to strengthen safety controls on food.

Brexit, Mr Macron said, symbolised the crisis facing Europe because the EU had proved incapable of meeting people’s expectations amid the shocks of the modern world and because of the lies told by those who promoted the UK’s departure from the union.

“Who told the British the truth about the post-Brexit future? Who spoke to them about losing access to the European market? Who mentioned the risks for peace in Ireland of going back to the old border?” he asked. “The withdrawal into nationalism goes nowhere. It’s just a rejection without a plan.”

Among his boldest proposals is a rethinking of the EU’s borderless Schengen area so that it falls under a new European internal security council.

In a swipe at eastern capitals such as Warsaw and Budapest that have rebelled over EU migration policy, the French president said all Schengen countries would have to accept “obligations of responsibility” like strict border protection and “solidarity” in the form of a common asylum policy.

On military matters, Mr Macron called for a defence and security treaty linked to Nato and involving increased military spending, and a European security council that would tie in the UK “to prepare our collective decisions”.

The French president also opened the door for a revision of the EU’s treaties — a move that requires a referendum in many countries and has been resisted by governments after a series of failure with previous attempts.

Mr Macron called for a “conference for Europe” by the end of 2019 to discuss and implement more than a dozen initiatives through dialogue with citizens, businesses, and academics “with an open mind, even to amending the treaties”.

“We are at a decisive moment for our continent,” he wrote. “A moment where, collectively we should reinvent — politically and culturally — the shape of our civilisation in a world that is being transformed. It is time for the European renaissance.”

Among Mr Macron’s proposals was the establishment of an agency to protect European democracies, providing experts to help states deal with possible cyber attacks aimed at undermining the European elections

The Macron initiative — less than a month before the UK’s planned exit from the EU and three months before the European elections — is designed to present a liberal, pro-EU agenda to counter the rising power and popularity of nationalists in the UK, Italy, eastern Europe and elsewhere.

In his 2017 Sorbonne speech, Mr Macron appealed to EU leaders to be bold in opposing populism and presented a long list of proposals to strengthen and integrate the bloc. Several of these, including a common — though so far limited — eurozone budget, have since been accepted with varying degrees of enthusiasm by other European leaders.

His latest declaration significantly makes no mention of reforms to the eurozone, after the budget proposal faced fierce opposition from hawkish capitals led by The Hague.

Mr Macron’s latest Europe initiative falls into three main areas: defending liberty and electoral democracy; protecting the continent with joint defence programmes and stronger borders to control the flow of migrants that has boosted anti-immigration parties; and reforming EU policies and rules on everything from industrial competition to the environment.

France has sought and sometimes secured the agreement of Germany for some of the proposals — including on defence industry co-operation — but Mr Macron is eager to reach a wider European audience in the hope of limiting the presence of rightwing nationalists in the next European Parliament.

Recent opinion polls in France show that Mr Macron’s La République en Marche party has regained a narrow lead over the far-right Rassemblement National of Marine Le Pen on voting intentions for the European elections. An Elabe poll on February 27 put them neck and neck with 22 per cent each. Traditional parties of the left and right, such as the Socialists, Communists and Les Républicains, are far behind.

Mr Macron, whose popularity plunged at the height of the gilets jaunes anti-government protests at the end of last year, is likely to be accused by other parties of again using his position as French president for party-political purposes ahead of the elections.

Several opposition politicians have already complained to the Conseil Supérieur de l’Audiovisuel, the French broadcasting authority, about the “great national debate” launched by Mr Macron to try to defuse the gilets jaunes crisis, accusing him of taking excessive airtime to express partisan views.

His officials said his European initiative was not part of the election campaign, although it was about “mobilising” European citizens.

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