STRASBOURG — French President Emmanuel Macron delivered a speech Tuesday to the European Parliament and then hung around the hemicycle to engage in debate.
He listened as some MEPs showered him with praise and others blasted his proposals as unrealistic, or even suggested he was a charlatan.
Perhaps the most fitting moment came when Philippe Lamberts, co-leader of the Greens group, gave Macron a gift: A coil of thick mountain-climbing rope to illustrate that the French president will not reach his lofty ambitions without help.
Macron hurled rhetorical thunderbolts at Euroskeptics and “illiberal” regimes, at one point basically telling them to get lost.
Here are four takeaways from the president’s day out in Strasbourg:
1. All hail King Emmanuel
Macron’s visit to the Parliament featured more pomp and ceremony than usually shown to political figures. Parliament’s protocol is different for a president than a prime minister, and Macron seemed to enjoy the perks.
He walked in on a red carpet and stood alongside Parliament President Antonio Tajani while the French and European anthems played. He shook hands with almost all the senior staff of the chamber, and agreed to pause for several photos. Parliament officials said it was Macron who insisted on holding a debate with MEPs rather than merely delivering a formal address.
And for those who view him as the new champion of EU federalism, Macron did not disappoint. He hurled rhetorical thunderbolts at Euroskeptics and “illiberal” regimes, at one point basically telling them to get lost.
Responding at one point to criticism from Euroskeptic MEPs, Macron said, “If you don’t like the European Parliament, you should have run in other elections!”
2. Tax-and-spend, quelle surprise!
Macron clearly wanted to use his appearance in Parliament to cultivate his image as a political maverick, who defied France’s traditional party system and won the presidency propelled by his own movement, La République En Marche.
But when his speech turned to the EU’s next long-term budget, Macron sounded very much like a traditional tax-and-spend French politician.
That’s great news for opponents of austerity, and a potentially worrying development for more economically liberal-minded countries worried that the U.K.’s departure may make it harder to champion fiscal restraint in Brussels.
Macron pushed again for a tax on big technology companies, and endorsed a European Commission proposal to tax their revenues rather than profits, calling it “a short-term tax that puts an end to the most shocking excesses.”
“I support this proposal,” he said. “It is essential, and it will allow, I hope, streams of own resources for the upcoming budget.”
“Own resources” is technical jargon for revenue that goes straight into the EU coffers without passing first through national budgets. And EU leaders are generally highly resistant to creating such new revenue streams. Later in his speech, Macron said he also supported the idea of developing other own resources through energy policies, such as fees on carbon emissions.
At the same time, Macron called for overall budget reform and he demanded, unequivocally, the elimination of all “rebates” — the quirky cash-back budget gimmicks that were introduced when Margaret Thatcher complained her country was paying too much. “The rebates,” Macron said, “cannot survive Brexit.”
“This budget that we will discuss must express a political project of coherence, efficiency and convergence,” Macron said in his speech, adding, “We must not deny any ambition of existing policies, but we must add the new ambitions we carry.”
3. Join a family? Nah, I’m just visiting
Perhaps the biggest question on MEPs’ minds as Macron came to the lectern on Tuesday was the one with implications for their own careers: Would he join one of the EU’s main political families ahead of the 2019 European election — and if so, which one?
Another advantage of steering clear of the EU’s party politics is that Macron can continue working to build support for some of his policy initiatives.
In the end, the French president left them all in suspense, saying it is “my freedom” not to join a political group.
After pushing unsuccessfully for the Parliament to allow transnational candidates in the 2019 election, Macron seems to have adopted a more realpolitik approach. He expressed general support for the so-called Spitzenkandidat or “lead candidate” process by which the Commission president is chosen from nominees put forward by the main political parties — seemingly recognizing that there is no way to stop it.
At the same time, Macron said the system would be more democratic had the Parliament endorsed his idea to take a step away from national constituencies and allow at least some Europe-wide voting. That proposal will have to wait, and Macron seems willing to play the long game.
By not affiliating with any of the existing political families, Macron can wait and see how well his own En Marche party does in France, and which parties in other countries express willingness to align with him. At that point, he could easily position himself as a partner with the center-right European People’s Party, which currently holds the most seats in Parliament and is widely expected to retain that position after next year’s vote.
Another advantage of steering clear of the EU’s party politics is that Macron can continue working to build support for some of his policy initiatives, like his ambitious proposal to complete the European Monetary Union. Parties hoping to tap into his pro-EU political momentum will have far more reason to collaborate with him if he doesn’t present himself as an election-year rival.
“I don’t belong to any political family that is represented among you,” he told the Parliament. “It is my freedom.” And also his leverage.
4. Strasbourg, eternal capital
Macron has portrayed himself as a crusader for a modernizing and relevant EU that meets the needs and expectations of its citizens. But on the issue of Strasbourg as a seat of the European Parliament — which requires the entire Parliament to uproot from Brussels one week every month in an exercise often derided as an expensive “traveling circus” — Macron’s views are retro.
On Tuesday, Macron paid tribute to the “beautiful city” of Strasbourg and bestowed uncharacteristic flattery upon the European Parliament, where he said MEPs “make our Europe live every day.” His charm offensive was largely intended to highlight the role of a Parliament that has long been denigrated as a haven for lazy or disgraced politicians who do little more than produce nonbinding reports full of acronyms and footnotes.
More than his predecessors, Macron stressed the importance of the role of the chamber, which he said “is the headquarters of European legitimacy, of its responsibility and thus of its vitality.”
“It is here that a part of the future of Europe is played out,” he said, adding: “It is here that we must anchor the rebirth of a Europe that is inspired by the spirit of its people.”
And while Macron didn’t overtly insist on the need to preserve Strasbourg’s role as a seat of Parliament, he did sign an agreement to renew the contract between the French government and the city of Strasbourg that formalizes the Alsatian city’s European status — which in Macron’s view is clearly not going to change anytime soon.