French president uses Athens speech to position himself as the leader to fix EU’s crisis of confidence, calling for the shoring up of shared European values.
The French president Emmanuel Macron has vowed to lead a “rebuilding” of the European Union, warning that “sovereignty, democracy and trust are in danger” and that its citizens no longer understand the project.
In a speech in Athens, Macron called for greater European Union cooperation and solidarity, reiterating his longstanding calls for an integrated eurozone with its own financial minister, parliament and a standalone budget to head off future crises.
“Our generation can choose to [do this] … we must find the strength to rebuild Europe,” he said.
The pro-business, centrist French leader whose popularity at home has slumped since he was elected in May, warned that Europeans “must not abandon the fight” of shared values or else the EU would ebb away or die, riven by internal conflicts.
He warned the bloc must reinvent itself and become “more democratic,” more than “simply summit after summit” of officials shut away in crisis meetings.
Macron promised a road map for the rebuilding of the EU in the coming months, arguing that nations sticking together inside the EU was the only way to protect citizens against problems including climate change and terrorism.
However, Macron cannot detail any plans for eurozone or EU reform until after this month’s election in Germany, when it will become clearer to what extent a new government in Berlin would be open to backing his ideas.
Macron has sought to position himself as the leader who can fix Europe’s crisis of confidence. He said the result of the UK Brexit referendum reflected a feeling that people did not “understand” the EU and felt they were being constantly asked “to make more efforts” while fearing their daily lives were deteriorating.
Macron’s Athens speech was also intended to shore up the support of voters in France who are sceptical about his market-orientated programme to rewrite French labour laws, loosen rules for hiring and firing, and change the pension system. His first measures have been perceived by some as favouring the wealthy over the interests of poorer voters.
Macron needs to ensure his policies are not seen by French voters as a dismantling of the country’s postwar welfare state, even though he is keen to stylise himself as a modernising influence for France and Europe.
Macron prizes symbolic historic settings for his speeches: he was the first western leader in modern times to make a speech from Pnyx hill in Athens, the birthplace of democracy beneath the Acropolis. The choreographed setting was laden with symbolism for Greece, which has struggled to remain in the eurozone and has recently suffered its worst economic crisis in modern times.
Macron praised Greece’s austerity reforms but said ordinary Greeks had paid a heavy price and repeated his call for an easing of the country’s debt burden. He reiterated that Athens should be granted debt relief and said he hoped the issue would be resolved in 2018 when Greece is due to exit its €86bn (£79bn) rescue programme.
Macron applauded the often unpopular reforms of prime minister Alexis Tsipras, and insisted that after years of gruelling austerity and the “incredible efforts of the people,” Greece was finally overcoming its problems. “The Greek crisis is slowly ending. We can see that Greece is recovering,” he said, praising Tsipras for his decisive action in the completion of two compliance reviews with international lenders.
Before Macron’s speech, a group of leftist militants who broke away from Tsipras’ Syriza party clashed with police as they attempted to protest against the sale of state assets around which much of the visit has focused. Authorities had banned demonstrations as part of a sweeping security operation in the Greek capital. The leftists vowed to defy the ban saying: “Greece is not for sale. Workers are not, and will not become slaves.”