PARIS (Reuters) - French President Emmanuel Macron has won support from 25 of the EU’s remaining 27 states for his idea to hold democratic debates on the future of Europe later this year, with Hungary and the Netherlands still needing convincing, a French official said.
Macron, an ardent europhile, swept to power last May by promising to make European institutions more democratic and closer to the people after rising euroskepticism led to Britain’s vote to leave the bloc.
In his election campaign, he said he would push EU states to consult their people during a period of six months to help lay the foundations of Europe for the next 10 to 15 years and give Europeans an opportunity to discuss issues in more detail than in a “yes/no” referendum.
The proposal was for each country to be able to decide what form these so-called “citizen consultations” would take - parliamentary discussions, online polls, TV debates - and aimed to breathe new life into the European integration project.
After initial skepticism from many countries in the midst of their own national elections, Macron has now clinched support from 25 countries, with debates expected to start in April in a number of them, a presidential aide told reporters.
The Polish government, with which Macron has traded barbs on several occasions since his election over issues such as the rule of law or immigration quotas, has recently sent a letter saying it would join in, the aide said.
Poland and Hungary have been at odds with many Western EU members and getting Warsaw on board is a sign the initiative “is working”, the presidential advisor said.
The Netherlands, which Paris still hopes to convince, is reluctant because of the “trauma” of a 2016 referendum on Ukraine which Dutch voters overwhelmingly rejected, the French presidential aide said.
The debates would come ahead of European parliament elections in 2019, which will in turn prompt a reshuffle in positions at the top of EU institutions.
Macron’s aim is to avoid Euroskeptic, populist parties gaining more support in the Strasbourg-based assembly, and he hopes holding these debates would counter the argument that the EU is undemocratic and lacks transparency.
Ahead of an informal meeting in Brussels on Friday where EU governments will discuss how to fill the gap left by Britain’s departure in the EU’s next seven-year budget, the official said Macron would push for an “ambitious” budget.
“France will say: ‘we’re ready to pay more for Europe, but on a number of conditions,” the official added.
France will push to make EU payments to poorer eastern European members conditional on respecting certain rules, including respect of the rule of law, the advisor said, in an apparent reference to Hungary and Poland.
“The budget is not just a cheque from some of us to others. It’s a shared political project,” the advisor said.
France will also push for the system of “rebates” to EU members’ budget contributions, inherited from Margaret Thatcher’s call to get her “money back” for Britain, to be reviewed. While Britain receives by far the largest rebate of its EU dues, other countries have been given smaller rebates. France is the biggest contributor to them, the aide said.
Reporting by Michel Rose; Editing by Peter Graff