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French President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech to set out plans for reforming the European Union at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, September 26, 2017. REUTERS/Ludovic Marin/Pool(reuters_tickers)
By Ingrid Melander and Richard Lough
PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron offered an ambitious vision for European renewal on Tuesday, calling for the EU to work more closely on defence and immigration and for the euro zone to have its own budget, ideas he may struggle to implement.
In a nearly two-hour speech delivered two days after the German election in which Chancellor Angela Merkel's conservative CDU/CSU bloc scored its worst result since 1949, limiting her freedom to manoeuvre on Europe, the 39-year-old French president held little back in terms of sweep, self-assurance and aspiration.
But at a time when Europe is beset by tensions between east and west and battling to overcome nearly a decade of draining economic crisis, Macron's earnest and at times high-brow discourse ran the risk of falling on deaf ears.
Speaking at the Sorbonne, he portrayed Europe as needing to relaunch itself, saying that on issues as diverse as asylum, border protection, corporate tax, intelligence sharing, defence and financial stability it needed much deeper cooperation.
"The only path that assures our future is the rebuilding of a Europe that is sovereign, united and democratic," the former investment banker and philosophy student said, flanked by a French and a European Union flag.
"At the beginning of the next decade, Europe must have a joint intervention force, a common defence budget and a joint doctrine for action."
In his run for the presidency, Macron made European reform a central plank of his centrist campaign, and he and Merkel have spoken frequently about their desire for France and Germany, the European Union's two largest economies and often its engines of change, to take the lead on integration.
But five months into his five-year term, Macron faces the threat that Merkel, 63 and looking to start her fourth term, has less capacity to move than either would have hoped.
Her alliance is still the largest bloc in the Bundestag, but to build a working majority she will likely have to form a coalition with the Greens and the liberal Free Democrats (FDP), who are opposed to many of Macron's ideas.
German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel, a senior member of the Social Democrats (SPD), hailed Macron's speech "a passionate plea against nationalism and for Europe".
"He can count on us," said Gabriel, whose party has ruled out being part of a new grand coalition.
Rather than tailoring his speech to fit the contours of what the FDP, the Greens or Merkel may have wanted to hear, Macron kept his vision broad and far-reaching, while also detailing some specific ideas for an improved euro zone.
"A budget can only go hand-in-hand with strong political leadership led by a common (finance) minister and a strong parliamentary supervision at the European level," he said, emphasising the need for democratic accountability.
The fiscally conservative FDP dislikes the idea of a euro zone budget or any facility that may lead to financial transfers from wealthier euro zone countries to poorer ones, as well as the possibility of national debt being pooled.
The party has also called for phasing out Europe's ESM bailout fund, which Macron wants to turn into a European Monetary Fund, and wants to see changes to EU treaties that would allow countries to leave the euro zone.
"You don't strengthen Europe with new pots of money," Alexander Lambsdorff, an FDP member in the European Parliament, said on Twitter in reaction to Macron's speech.
In a statement issued by the FDP in Berlin, Lambsdorff said: "The problem in Europe is not a lack of public funds, but the lack of reform. A euro zone budget would set exactly the wrong incentives."
Not shying away from addressing Germany directly even as it tries to resolve the fallout from Sunday's election, Macron set an objective that the two countries completely integrate their markets and corporate rules by 2024.
"We share the same European ambitions and I know her commitment to Europe," he said of Merkel. "I'm proposing to Germany a new partnership. We will not agree on everything, not immediately, but we will discuss everything."
In Berlin on Monday, Merkel said it was important to move beyond catchphrases and provide detail on how Europe could be improved. It was not immediately clear whether Macron had managed to go beyond slogans as far as Merkel was concerned.
But Martin Selmayr, the chief of staff of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, said the proposals to reinforce the euro zone would be discussed alongside Juncker's own at a euro zone summit planned for December.
Italy's EU affairs minister, Sandro Gozi, said the speech would inspire European leaders into action.
"An excellent speech by Emmanuel Macron on reviving the European Union. Let’s work on this together, starting tomorrow at the Lyon Summit," he said, referring to a meeting of the Italian and French leaders to discuss industrial policy.
Macron said he hoped his ideas would be taken into account in Germany's coalition building negotiations. Those talks are not expected to begin until mid-October and may take several months.
"Some had said I should wait for the coalition talks to be concluded," Macron said, adding had he done so, the reaction in Berlin would have been: "Your proposals are great but it's too late, the coalition deal already lays out what will we do on Europe for the next four years."
(Additional reporting by Sudip Kar-Gupta and Bate Felix in Paris, Crispian Balmer in Rome and Alastair Macdonald in Brussels; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Janet Lawrence)