A New Ambition for the European Union: ‘Power’

PARIS — President Emmanuel Macron, in a rare news conference, called on Thursday for the European Union to change from a “Europe of internal cooperation to a powerful Europe active in the world, fully sovereign, free in its choices and master of its own destiny.”

Speaking on the eve of the six-month French presidency of the European Union, which begins Jan. 1, Mr. Macron said the slogan chosen for this period would be “relaunch, power and belonging.” Power is not a word often held up as a goal by a union that emerged from the ashes of war.

The president’s assertive tone over a two-hour meeting with journalists, the first half of it taken up by his own speech, reflected his determination to forge “European sovereignty” as the only means for the continent to count in the 21st century between an autocratic China and a United States whose focus has moved away from Europe.

Many Europeans have become convinced of the unreliability of the United States as an ally and protector, and of the economic and ideological threat from China — reasons to build a more independent Europe. But how ready other European states, especially Germany, are to embrace Mr. Macron’s vision is not clear.

For Germans, who prefer that their leaders be publicly reserved to the point of blandness, Mr. Macron’s style can appear a little swaggering. The new German Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, will meet the president Friday in his first foreign visit.

The European presidency, which France has not held for 13 years because of the slow rotation among 27 members, is something of a political tool for Mr. Macron in that the French presidential election will be held in April.

However, he refused to confirm his candidacy for re-election, vowing only that he would exercise his five-year mandate “until the last quarter hour.” It is widely expected that Mr. Macron, 43, will only formally enter the race in the first couple of months of 2022, leaving his opponents to take swipes at one another as he looks on.

The president, whose tendency to equivocate on difficult issues has led to his being called the “on-the-other-hand” president, has never wavered in his firm support for the European project, despite the steady rise of a far right in France whose banner is nationalism. He has long advocated “strategic autonomy” for Europe, making it less U.S.-dependent for its defense.

His vision of a more assertive France, acting as Europe’s leader, could appeal to center-right voters. The retirement of Mr. Scholz’s predecessor, Angela Merkel, long seen as the de facto E.U. leader, leaves Mr. Macron more room for maneuver.

The cascade of objectives he announced on Thursday reflected his determination to make a mark.

Among the plans Mr. Macron outlined were a Euro-African summit in February to “rebuild” relations and offer a “New Deal” for Africa; a security summit in March to galvanize joint European military exercises and development of a shared defense industry; measures to turn Europe into “a digital power; the creation of a six-month “European civic service” for citizens under 25; and a tightening of the union’s external borders as Europe faces immigration pressures it has been unable to control.

“I am a proud European,” Mr. Macron said, as he described how the continent had come together to fight the pandemic. “It’s a beautiful thing, Europe.” He continued: “When you defend Europe, you have to defend it completely. You have to correct it. You have to confront its faults, its bureaucratic complexities, its deviations.”

For Britain, which left the European Union last year and has since been embroiled in several fights with France over fishing rights, migrants and other issues, Mr. Macron did not refrain from some scathing words.

He accused Britain of operating an economic model that relies “on the illegal work of foreigners.” He suggested that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s government was incapable of “good faith.” He said he could not forget Britain’s role in the Anglo-American sale this year of nuclear-powered submarines to Australia, which upended a previous commitment to buying conventional French submarines.

This submarine contract, he said, amounted to the deliberate undermining of a “French vision in the Indo-Pacific” and was “not exactly a flagrant sign of friendship, to use a touch of understatement.”

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