French President Emmanuel Macron used a speech on Europe Day to put forward a sweeping, avant-garde but detail-light proposal to redraw the political map of the Continent with a new organization that would give Ukraine a closer relationship with the EU short of membership — and could even include the U.K.
Speaking Monday at the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Macron proposed a new “European political community,” which would include both members and non-members of the EU.
The event served as both a celebration of Europe Day — which marks the anniversary of the Schuman Declaration that paved the way for today’s EU — and a closing ceremony for the Conference on the Future of Europe, a yearlong EU self-assessment process that included a series of town hall meetings with citizens.
Macron, who was inaugurated for his second term on Saturday, offered virtually no specifics about the proposal. And the Élysée Palace did not provide any fact sheets or other policy briefs as it has on previous occasions when Macron has laid out bold prescriptions for Europe. Instead, the newly-reelected president largely seemed to be improvising, apparently even catching some of his own advisers by surprise.
The French leader appeared to be animated by a desire to find a solution for war-torn Ukraine, which has pleaded desperately for fast-track membership of the EU in the months since Russia’s brutal invasion.
Macron said the “legitimate aspiration” of the people of Ukraine, “like those of Moldova and Georgia, to join the European Union, invites us to rethink our geography and the organization of our continent.
“Ukraine, through its combat and its courage, is already today a member of the heart of our Europe, of our family, of our union,” he declared.
But even as Macron expressed an outpouring of emotion for Ukraine, which is hoping to be officially granted EU candidate status at a European Council summit in June, the French leader simultaneously appeared to dash Kyiv’s highest hopes.
“Even if tomorrow we granted them the status of candidate for membership of our European Union … we all know perfectly well that the process allowing them to join would take several years — in truth, probably several decades. And it is the truth to say this, unless we decide to lower the standards of this membership and therefore to completely rethink the unity of our Europe.”
However, in proposing new tiers of political affiliation with the EU, Macron was calling into question some of the most treasured, cherished and unshakeable pillars of the Union, including a balance of rights and responsibilities that entails fealty to EU law and payments into a common budget.
And the organization that Macron described sounded a lot like the EU — yet would be open to countries such as the U.K. that had quit the bloc.
“This new European organization would allow democratic European nations adhering to our set of values to find a new space for political cooperation, security, cooperation in energy, transport, investment, infrastructure, and the movement of people, especially our youth,” Macron said. “Joining it would not prejudge future membership in the European Union, necessarily, just as it would not be closed to those who have left.”
Only the U.K. — which went through a recent and bitter separation from the EU — and Greenland fit the description of “those who have left.” And it was precisely Britain’s demands to enjoy privileges of membership while skirting obligations — which Brussels derided as “cherrypicking” — that led to such a vicious divorce.
Macron did not explain how any of the privileges of membership would be balanced against obligations. Nor did he have any specifics on how core EU members would provide security for newer affiliates that might be vulnerable to attack, let alone for Ukraine which is already at war.
Macron was not the first to come up with a plan for strengthening the EU’s ties to partner countries, including Ukraine, before granting formal membership. Last month, Enrico Letta, a former Italian prime minister and leader of Italy’s Democratic Party, proposed a “European confederation” with aspiring member countries, that would begin with a shared “economic area,” gradually adding commitments and eventually including a common defense clause.
Traditional European Council summits would be followed immediately by confederation summits, Letta explained, in a memo describing his plan.
Macron later pushed his new plan on a visit to Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — his first foreign trip since his reelection.
He sought to talk up the advantages of his proposal, saying that it “will take several years, decades” for Ukraine to join the EU via the regular enlargement procedure. “Is that what we want? We take the risk that they will despair, that they will give up. Because there is this geographical proximity, they hold on to the same basic values, I would like to emphasize that once again, because Ukraine today is fighting for exactly that and taking all the risks for exactly that … we need to build a new political form, and not just a legal form.”
Scholz appeared to give Macron’s idea a polite but noncommittal welcome. He described it as “a very interesting proposal to deal with the big challenge that we are facing.” He said it was “absolutely necessary to find ways” for more countries to align closely with the EU. “That’s why I’m very glad about the proposal that we will discuss here now,” he said.
However, Scholz offered a coded warning that Macron’s plan should not be used to fob off countries that have already been working for many years toward EU membership — with little enthusiasm from France.
“It’s clear that this must and won’t dissuade us from the accession processes on which we are already working for so long,” Scholz declared, adding that the “courage” that Western Balkan countries had taken must be rewarded by opening or advancing enlargement talks with them.
Some countries aspiring to join are likely to see Macron’s proposal as a blatant stalling tactic masquerading as an embrace.
Reactions among Macron’s fellow EU heads of state and government are likely to be similarly apprehensive — if not outright confused.
That applies not just to the French president’s new “community,” but also to his declaration of support for revising the EU’s own treaties.
Many national leaders have shown little appetite for changing the treaties — a lengthy and difficult bureaucratic process that can also create all manner of unforeseen political peril, including referendums.
But Macron latched onto the European Parliament’s plan to launch a convention on treaty change, propelled by recommendations from the Conference on the Future of Europe.
“I am, I tell you, in favor of this institutional reform.,” he said. “And I would like us to discuss it with the necessary boldness and freedom at the June European Council.”
Jacopo Barigazzi contributed reporting.