Macron and Merkel pledge fresh push for a united Europe to fight off populist challenge

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2017, 3:51am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 May, 2017, 3:51am

France’s new President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday vowed to give a new impetus to Europe, even if it requires treaty change, after Macron appointed a prime minister from the conservative camp.

Macron, the fervently pro-European centrist sworn in as head of state on Sunday, in keeping with tradition made his first trip abroad to Berlin, its power couple partner at the heart of the European project.

There, the 39-year-old leader urged a “historic reconstruction” of Europe to battle populism sweeping the continent, following his defeat of far-right leader Marine Le Pen.

Merkel, in power for a decade, agreed the two core European powers wanted to give “a new push” to their cooperation and “new momentum” to the Franco-German axis.

“There is a common understanding that we can’t just focus on Britain leaving the EU but that, first and foremost, we have to think about how we can deepen and crisis-proof the European Union, and especially the eurozone,” she said at a joint press conference.

Ahead of his visit, Macron’s ideas on reforming the eurozone -- including setting up a separate budget, legislature and finance minister for the currency bloc -- had sparked scepticism in Berlin.

Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble had warned that such deep-reaching reforms would require EU treaty changes, which were “not realistic” at a time when Europe was hit by a surge of anti-euro populism.

But Merkel left the door open, saying that “from the German point of view, it’s possible to change the treaty if it makes sense”, while Macron also said that there was “no taboo” on this issue.

Macron also soothed German concerns over the mutualising of “old debt” between eurozone countries, saying he does not favour the idea of so-called eurobonds, but adding that he was open to sharing future burdens.

Macron names conservative prime minister, eyes closer ties with Berlin

Earlier Monday in Paris, Macron named centre-right lawmaker Edouard Philippe as prime minister in a further effort to splinter the country’s traditional parties and redraw the political map.

Philippe, a little known 46-year-old MP and mayor of the northern port of Le Havre, comes from the moderate wing of the right-wing Republicans party and is seen as a pragmatist.

His appointment was seen as a strategic move by Macron, who is trying to woo modernisers of all stripes to his new centrist party, the Republique en Marche (Republic on the Move, REM), having already won over dozens of moderate Socialist MPs.

Former investment banker Macron, who trounced Le Pen in the May 7 presidential run-off, aims to take votes from both the Republicans and Socialists in next month’s crucial parliamentary election.

Philippe has been presented as his Trojan horse on the right of the spectrum.

Some in the party have argued in favour of an alliance with Macron.

Around 20 MPs on Monday issued a statement urging the Republicans and centre-right UDI to “accept his outstretched hand”, saying the right needed to “take the full measure of the political transformation taking place before their eyes”.

Macron needs a majority to push through his ambitious plans to loosen France’s strict labour laws, boost entrepreneurship and reduce class sizes in tough neighbourhoods.

But his year-old party faces a battle for seats, with the Republicans, Le Pen’s National Front, the radical left and other losers of the presidential election all plotting revenge.

Leftist firebrand Jean-Luc Melenchon said that Philippe’s appointment as premier showed the right had been “annexed” by the tentacular Macron.