Tallinn (AFP) – German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday hailed French President Emmanuel Macron’s new vision for Europe as EU leaders held a frank debate on reforming the bloc.
The leaders met in the Estonian capital Tallinn two days after Macron used a major speech to call on his counterparts to recommit themselves to a European project hurt by Brexit, the rise of populism and the migrant crisis.
Merkel, a European veteran who emerged with a weakened mandate from German elections at the weekend, said before meeting the 39-year-old Macron that EU leaders should move quickly on reform based on his plans.
“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 down for dinner to discuss the raft of reforms proposed by Macron.
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 introduced his ideas at the three-hour dinner at the Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn, a former summer palace for the Russian Tsars that is now a national museum.
The leaders discussed the ideas — over courses of flank steak, salmon and rabbit liver — “in a very constructive and positive atmosphere”, an EU source told AFP.
Based on the discussion, Tusk, who coordinates EU summit meetings, “will consult with his colleagues in the coming two weeks and propose how to take the work forward”, the EU source added.
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 a visit to a NATO military base with Macron. Brexit negotiations, however, were not on the official menu.
The dinner discussion on the EU’s future will be followed on Friday with talks on digital issues, a priority for tiny Estonia, which holds the bloc’s six-month rotating presidency.
– ‘Avoid mirages’ –
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 critique of Macron’s ambition.
Macron’s speech came days after Merkel won a fourth term in a vote that 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.
While her comments show the decades-old Franco-German axis at the heart of the EU is alive and well, Europe is now watching closely to see whether Macron starts to take the mantle of most influential leader from Merkel.
– 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 being at 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.
The EU 27 are due to formally discuss Brexit at their next Brussels summit in late October.