French president Emmanuel Macron has issued an unprecedented appeal to European citizens for unity ahead of contentious EU elections in May.
“A few weeks from now, the European elections will be decisive for the future of our continent,” Macron wrote in an editorial published in 22 languages in dozens of major European newspapers today (March 5). “Never since the Second World War has Europe been so essential. Yet never has Europe been in such danger.”
Europeans will head to the polls between May 23 and 26 for a five-yearly vote to select their European parliament representatives. Mainstream centrist parties like Macron’s are concerned about low voter turnout and the high likelihood of pro-nationalist, anti-EU candidates getting more seats.
“We can’t let nationalists with no solutions exploit people’s anger. We can’t sleepwalk to a diminished Europe,” Macron wrote. “It is for you to decide whether Europe and the values of progress that it embodies are to be more than just a passing episode in history.”
Macron has proposed a “roadmap for the EU” which includes several major reforms.
The first is to create an Europe-wide social safety net program that would guarantee a minimum European wage “appropriate to each country,” and discussed each year. This unorthodox idea is especially interesting coming from Macron, who has been criticized at home for his efforts to modernize the French labor code in ways that some have said disproportionately favors employers.
The second consists of rethinking one of the EU’s founding principles, freedom of movement within the borderless Schengen area. “No community can create a sense of belonging if it does not have bounds that it protects,” he wrote. In a passage clearly directed at anti-immigration eastern European states (paywall), Macron called for “a common border force and a European asylum office” to oversee internal security.
Amid concerns about foreign meddling and cyber attacks in the EU elections, Macron’s letter also proposed the creation of a “European Agency for the Protection of Democracies,” which would offer the services of experts to individual member states seeking to protect their elections. He also proposed banning foreign financing of European political parties, a key proposal in the wake of allegations that the far-right League party of Italian deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini may have sought funds from Russia.
“All our institutions need to have the climate as their mandate,” Macron also said, calling for reaching zero carbon emissions status by 2050 and halving the use of pesticides by 2025. The president wants to create “a European Climate Bank to finance the ecological transition, a European food safety force to improve our food controls and, to counter the lobby threat, independent scientific assessment of substances hazardous to the environment and health.”
Finally, Macron proposed organizing a Conference for Europe that would allow European institutions and member states “to engage with citizens’ panels … academics, business and labour representatives, and religious and spiritual leaders” and “propose all the changes our political project needs.”
Reactions to Macron’s letter have been mixed. Belgian prime minister Charles Michel (link in French) agreed with the idea of “a Europe that protects freedom and democracy.” German justice minister Katarina Barley echoed Macron’s calls for a stronger and more unified Europe. And Juha Sipila, the prime minister of Finland, tweeted his support:
But at home, critics (link in French) lambasted Macron’s letter, taking the opportunity to advance their own platforms ahead of the European elections. François-Xavier Bellamy, the French right’s lead candidate for the European parliament, criticized Macron for not saying “that we must put an end to mass immigration.” Bruno Retailleau, the right-wing senate leader, said that “to bring Europeans together, we should start by not dividing them unnecessarily by setting up this false division between progressives and nationalists.” And Nicolas Dupont-Aignan, a far-right, anti-EU, and pro-nationalist politician, said Macron’s proposal of “migratory submersion” undermined his claim of wanting to protect the continent.
To implement any of his proposals, Macron will need a strong showing in the upcoming elections, and the support of domestic and European allies. This is no easy task. Polls show that Macron’s party is neck-and-neck with Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party—a warning sign that the “grand coalition” of European centre-right and centre-left parties that has dominated the EU parliament for 40 years might not hold.