TALLINN – French President Emmanuel Macron won backing from Angela Merkel for plans to reform the European Union after Brexit, founded on what the German chancellor called “intense” cooperation between Paris and Berlin.
But during an EU dinner in Estonia that lasted till midnight ahead of a formal summit on Friday, some leaders sounded wary of the youthful new French leader’s ambitious ideas, set out in a speech at the Sorbonne on Tuesday, for deepening EU integration.
Merkel, re-elected for a fourth term on Sunday but weakened by the rise of an insurgent eurosceptic opposition, met Macron for half an hour before dinner and, according to a French aide, welcomed his speech as “visionary” and a return of co-founder France as a driving force in the European Union project.
But she also noted differences. Some of her potential new coalition partners, along with northern governments like the Dutch and Finns, are very dubious about his suggestions for pooling budgets with less fiscally austere states in the south.
“As far as the proposals were concerned, there was a high level of agreement between German and France. We must still discuss the details, but I am of the firm conviction that Europe can’t just stay still but must continue to develop,” she said.
French officials said Macron, who they said spoke again with Merkel at length after the late-night dinner, was not trying to impose his ideas but to show others that they were in their common interest and recognised that some needed time to reflect.
“The idea is not about forcing people to give a binary response. France cannot force things,” one said, adding that Paris hoped leaders could agree on a way to work on the ideas in the coming weeks before an October summit in Brussels.
“The dinner,” a Macron aide said, “Was a chance to share further the Sorbonne project … Things are on the move.”
However, he faces a reality check of scepticism from leaders wary of his talk of ambitious “horizons” for the continent. The no-nonsense president of euro zone member Lithuania, Dalia Grybauskaite, tweeted during the dinner: “European horizons drawn. Important to avoid mirages in the desert on the way.”
An EU official said that the dinner had shown there was a “strong and shared willingness to maintain the unity” and that the European Union should be “open to address new ideas” while continuing to work to deliver concrete results for citizens.
Summit chair Donald Tusk would consult governments in the coming two weeks and make proposals for how to follow up on the debate about reform at a summit in Brussels on Oct. 19-20.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed similar, but different, reforms earlier this month and called for a landmark summit of the 27 in Romania on the day Britain leaves the EU in 18 months time, on March 30, 2019.
British Prime Minister Theresa May also attended the dinner, despite Britain’s increasing isolation as it prepares to quit.
She took the opportunity of Friday’s “digital summit” in Tallinn to visit British troops on a NATO mission in northern Estonia and pledged post-Brexit security cooperation with European neighbours confronting Russian threats.
May arrived with a better sense of whether her keynote major Brexit speech last Friday has succeeded in unblocking talks in Brussels on Britain’s divorce package.
The chief EU negotiator, Michel Barnier, praised on Thursday a “new dynamic” to Brexit negotiations created by concessions made by May although progress was still not sufficient to allow discussions on future trade relations.
EU officials said she should not expect direct feedback in Tallinn from the other leaders. But she was expected to talk to Merkel and others individually as she pursues her quest for agreement to open talks on close ties with the bloc.
Friday’s talks on a “digital agenda” for Europe will range from ways to ease cross-border flows of data while protecting privacy to cybersecurity and taxing online businesses.
Additional reporting by Julia Fioretti, David Mardiste and Andreas Rinke in Tallinn, Elizabeth Piper in Tapa, Estonia, Thomas Escritt in Berlin and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Toby Chopra.(Reuters)