Tallinn (AFP) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday hailed French President Emmanuel Macron’s new vision for Europe as EU leaders met for a frank debate on reforming the bloc.
In a major speech in Paris on Tuesday, the 39-year old Macron called on his counterparts to recommit themselves to a European project hurt by Brexit, the rise of populism and the migrant crisis.
Merkel, the EU’s most powerful leader, said before meeting Macron in Tallinn that there was a deep consensus between France and Germany on many of his ambitious proposals and that EU leaders should move quickly on reform.
“There is a wide agreement between France and Germany when it comes to the proposals although we must work on the details,” Merkel told reporters before EU leaders sat for dinner in Estonia to discuss the raft of reforms proposed by Macron.
British Prime Minister Theresa May was also present for the summit, and was set to meet Merkel for a bilateral discussion on Friday as well as visit to a NATO military base with Macron.
Brexit negotiations are not on the official menu, although she may meet some leaders separately to discuss Brexit talks.
The dinner discussion on the EU’s future will be followed by a second day on Friday devoted to digital issues, a priority for tiny Estonia, which holds the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency.
– ‘Avoid mirages’ –
With media in Tallinn kept at bay on Thursday night, the European leaders were given a rare opportunity for a “frank and informal” discussion, without any agenda, according to EU President Donald Tusk.
The young French president was to open discussion at the a three-hour dinner at the Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn, a former summer palace for the Russian Tsars that is now a national museum.
Macron’s proposals for a post-Brexit shake-up of Europe include a finance minister, budget and parliament for the 19-member eurozone, as well as an EU-wide “rapid reaction force” to work with national armies.
Also at the dinner was European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker who set out his own vision for a more deeply integrated European project in his annual State of the Union speech earlier this month.
A French presidency official said reform of the eurozone would be the biggest challenge and that Macron’s reforms could take until 2024 to reach completion.
He also said that initial feedback from leaders had been very positive, though cracks began to emerge ahead of the dinner.
“European horizons drawn. Important to avoid mirages in the desert on the way,” said Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaite in a first open criticism of Macron’s ambition.
Macron’s speech came days after Merkel won a fourth term in a vote which nevertheless saw historic inroads by Germany’s hard-right.
Merkel, who is now seeking new allies to rebuild a ruling coalition in Germany, said Macron’s reform push would “certainly” influence negotiations to form a new government.
– Brexit off the menu –
Macron also included a new type of tax on technology giants like Facebook and Apple — based on how much value they create in a country rather than their profits — a controversial proposal that the leaders will discuss on Friday.
Estonia bills itself as the avant garde of the digital revolution and originally called the talks to help bring the rest of the bloc up to speed.
May meets her EU counterparts as British and EU officials closed a fourth round of negotiations in Brussels.
British negotiator David Davis said there had been “decisive steps forward” on a divorce agreement, but EU counterpart Michel Barnier said it would still take “weeks or months” before they could unlock important talks on a future trade deal, a big demand by London.
Tusk, who coordinates EU summits, on Tuesday agreed there was not sufficient progress on the divorce and it would be too early at Tallinn to launch talks on future ties.
The EU 27 are due to formally discuss Brexit at their next Brussels summit in late October.
Spain’s Mariano Rajoy was the only no-show in Tallinn due to the crisis over the independence referendum planned in Catalonia at the weekend.