Macron Appeals for EU Unity in Face of Nationalism

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks before the European Parliament on in Strasbourg, France.
Photo:

FREDERICK FLORIN/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

PARIS—French President

Emmanuel Macron

on Tuesday set out on a campaign to drum up grassroots support for the European Union, urging unity as he faces resistance throughout the 28-nation bloc to his plan to deepen ties.

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The 40-year-old leader is hoping to reconnect voters with a European project many view as technocratic and elitist. Parties skeptical of the bloc have surged in recent years among voters worried about their economic security and fearful of immigration and rapid cultural changes.

Mr. Macron issued a strongly worded call for the bloc to work together to craft “a new European sovereignty” amid rising nationalist sentiment.

“We are in a context where a kind of European civil war is emerging, in which our differences and national egos sometimes seem more important than what unites us,” Mr. Macron said in his first speech to the European Parliament as French president.

As part of a series of continent-wide “consultations” he has called to discuss the future of Europe, Mr. Macron is travelling to Epinal, a small town in northeastern France, where he will take questions from some 300 residents. National governments will collect summaries of public events for European heads of state to debate at the end of the year.

Whether Mr. Macron succeeds in his efforts will be a major test of his presidency.

He defeated euroskeptic National Front leader

Marine Le Pen

in France’s presidential election last year by promising an answer to voter concerns over immigration, unemployment and security was more EU, not less.

He has since set out demands for a more integrated eurozone that would require countries to share more resources, and a strengthening of EU policies on defense, corporate tax, border protection and asylum.

But those ambitions have run into roadblocks. Foremost, the uncertainty sparked by German elections in September set off months of negotiations in Berlin, leaving Mr. Macron without his principal European negotiating partner.

The coalition German Chancellor

Angela Merkel

finally formed has stuck to Germany’s reluctance to share financial burdens, defying Mr. Macron’s core ambition for a common eurozone budget to boost investment and fight recessions.

Voters around Europe have also indicated little support for his broader European ambitions. The anti-immigration Alternative for Germany won its first seats in September and Italy is still trying to form a government after anti-European parties made substantial gains last month.

Hungarian Prime Minister

Viktor Orban,

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a leading figure of the continent’s nationalist right, swept to re-election this month on an anti-immigration, euroskeptic platform.

In France too, advisers to Mr. Macron note that anti-EU candidates took around half of the first round votes. Mr. Macron only has a year to change the dynamic before European Parliament elections, which in the past have yielded breakthroughs for anti-EU parties.

“The European situation is very worrying,” an adviser to Mr. Macron said. “In all our countries there is a split between those who are at ease in the European project, at ease in an open society and open trade, and a part of society that is in distress and angry.”

Analysts warn the public consultations risk backfiring by giving nationalist groups a platform to lambaste Brussels and Mr. Macron.

“Europe is the voice of reason against the voice of emotion. This kind of debate always gives an advantage to emotion,” said

Thomas Gomart,

director of foreign relations institute Ifri.

In his speech at the parliament in Strasbourg, Mr. Macron sought to show how a stronger EU can protect citizens. He underlined his recent success in convincing Europe to strengthen rules governing cheap labor moving around the bloc and proposed that the EU should directly finance towns taking in refugees.

“We need to hear the anger of the people of Europe today. They don’t need lessons; they need a new project and effectiveness in everyday life,” Mr. Macron said.

In a sign of further differences within the bloc, the EU’s executive on Tuesday recommended accession talks start with Albania and Macedonia even as Mr. Macron said the EU should get no bigger until there are major reforms. A decision to open membership talks would require all 28 member states’ approval in June.

An expansion of the bloc to include the Balkans is seen by some as key to completing the EU’s mission of spreading peace and stability. Others fear that bringing in additional countries will further erode the EU’s decision-making process and add to conflict within the bloc.

Laurence Norman

in Brussels contributed to this article.

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