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The EU must focus on climate, tech and security, Macron says as he kicks off French presidency

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By Alice Tidey  with AFP
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France's President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a tribute to the late EU Parliament President David Sassoli at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, Jan 17, 2022
France's President Emmanuel Macron delivers a speech during a tribute to the late EU Parliament President David Sassoli at the European Parliament, in Strasbourg, Jan 17, 2022   -   Copyright  AP Photo/Jean-Francois Badias

Climate change, digital transformation, and security are the main challenges facing the European Union, French President Emmanuel Macron said on Wednesday, calling on member states to unite and come up with common positions.

Macron was in Strasbourg on Wednesday morning to kick off the French presidency of the bloc with a speech to MEPs.

The French leader named climate change as the continent's first challenge, praising Europe for being where the world came together in 2015 to recognise the climate urgency and for setting the target of becoming carbon neutral by 2050.

"We have to move from words to deeds, transforming our industries, investing in new technologies," he told lawmakers. He also urged Europe to adopt a carbon adjustment mechanism at the border, mirror clauses in trade agreements, and to implement the first law in the world banning imports that have contributed to deforestation.

He called for the protection of the environment to be added to the European Union's Charter of Fundamental Rights. He also proposed adding the right to abortion into the legally-binding text.

"The second challenge of the century is the digital revolution," Macron said. He called on the Old Continent to "build a genuine single digital market" that will enable the creation and growth of European digital "champions".

He said he wants a Europe "that knows how to regulate digital players" and also "protect our rights, our freedoms, respect for our private lives, and to fight against hate speech and division."

'Escalating tensions'

"The third challenge is, of course, security," the French president said, urging Europe to "arm itself, not out of defiance of other powers, but to ensure its independence in this world of violence, not to be subject to the choices of others, to regain control of its borders and space."

"When it comes to defence, we can't just be content with responding to international crises," he also said, stressing the need for the bloc to "anticipate" and seek strategic independence.

"Our Europe today is confronted with escalating tensions, in particular in our neighbourhood, with a disruption of the world, with a return to the tragedy of war," he went on.

He urged dialogue with Russia and stressed that Europeans must "collectively make their own demands and put themselves in a position to enforce them." He reiterated the EU's position that neighbouring countries can make their own choices regarding the alliances and bodies they want to join and rejected so-called spheres of influence.

The European Union and Ukraine were earlier this month excluded from US-Russia talks on security. Washington has accused Moscow of preparing to invade Ukraine after stationing tens of thousands of troops and military equipment along its border.

Moscow denies this but has demanded guarantees that Ukraine or Georgia will never be allowed to join NATO, claiming both countries as part of its sphere of influence. Kyiv, Brussels, and Washington have rejected this demand.

Macron also said during his speech that France aims to "reform the Schengen area" during the upcoming six months to prevent irregular migration. "We need to protect our external borders" with an "intergovernmental rapid intervention force" and by "building partnerships with countries of origin and transit to fight smuggling networks and make our return policy effective."

Rule of law and nationalism

Since his election in 2017, which he celebrated to the sound of the EU anthem, the French president has posed as the leader of the pro-Europeans in the face of "nationalists" and "populists".

In his latest speech, he once more stressed that "neither a return to nationalism nor the dissolution of our identities will be the answer to this new world."

He also said that "the French presidency will be one which promotes the values which are ours and can be often looked at as something we have in perpetuity but are in fact being weakened", naming democracy, solidarity, and respect for the rule of law.

The COVID-19 pandemic, he argued, has shown that societies that are free and open have protected their citizens and economy better than authoritarian regimes.

He deplored that a weakening of the rule of law is being observed in "many of our countries".

"We're going to talk and we're going to defend the power of the rule of law," he continued but said it must be done through "dialogue" and by reminding people that the rule of law is not "an invention made in Brussels" but the result of the continent's "common history" and revolutions.

'President of the climate inaction'

Some MEPs were allowed to respond to the French president, including Yannick Jadot, who is running as the Green party candidate in France's presidential election this coming April.

Jadot told Macron he "will go down in history as the president of the climate inaction. You prefer to sign armistices with the lobbies rather than wage wars on climate change."

He also attacked the French leader on human rights. "You have said Europe is a project of peace, fundamental freedoms, human rights, and democracy. So why were you celebrating the agreement with China a year ago, when the Chinese regime was perpetuating and is continuing to perpetuate repression against the Uyghurs?"

Manfred Webber, leader of the right-wing European People's Party group in the EU parliament, meanwhile denounced Macron's attacks on nationalists and populists, accusing him of creating divisions instead of seeking compromises. He also offered his support for Valérie Pécresse, who is running in the French presidential election for the main right-wing Les Republicains party.

Macron has yet to declare his candidacy for a second term and opponents in France have criticised him for using his office to campaign for his reelection without respecting official rules.

After the debate, Emmanuel Macron will have lunch with the new president of the Parliament, Maltese conservative Roberta Metsola.