Emmanuel Macron has likened the political divisions in Europe to a civil war and warned against growing illiberalism on the continent.
In his first speech to the European parliament, the French president called for the defence of European liberal democracy that offered protection of the rights of its minorities, and he attacked those who took their countries out of the EU to pursue fairytale “adventures”.
“I am for the most integrated and closest possible relationship after Brexit – and there’s a well-known solution – it’s called EU membership”, he said.
The vast majority of the speech was, however, about the future without the UK, and the need for the 27 to be united in opposition to the emergence of the nationalist authoritarian traits of the past.
Without naming the Hungarian prime minister, Viktor Orbán, who recently won a landslide victory after a campaign that played on voters’ fears of migration, Macron was scathing of politicians who scapegoated migrants.
Macron told MEPs: “There seems to be a certain European civil war: national selfishness and negativity seems to take precedence over what brings us together. There is a fascination with the illiberal, and that is growing all the time.
“In the future we must struggle to defend our ideals ... This is a democracy that respects individual minority fundamental rights, which used to be called liberal democracy, and I use that term by choice. The deadly tendency which might lead our continent to the abyss, nationalism, giving up of freedom: I reject the idea that European democracy is condemned to impotence.”
“I don’t want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers, I don’t want to belong to a generation that’s forgotten its own past,” the 40-year-old president said.
Echoing Tony Blair’s 2005 appearance in the European parliament, during which he tackled Nigel Farage head-on to rapturous applause, Macron picked out the Front National for comment.
“You were elected to this assembly by the French people, sir”, the president said. “Perhaps you shouldn’t have come.”
Macron also passionately defended the military strikes by the US, the UK and France last weekend against the Syrian regime’s chemical weapons infrastructure. “Do we sit back, do we defend (human) rights by saying: rights are for us, principles are for us, and realities are for others? No, no!” he said.
The speech was heartily welcomed by Jean-Claude Juncker, the European commission president, but received a lukewarm response from others, including Manfred Weber, the German MEP who leads the European People’s party, within which Orbán’s MEPs sit.
Weber told Macron that Europe welcomed his election but that people should not be divided into good and bad Europeans.
“Some people call this the old Europe. I call this the democratic Europe,” Weber said, gesturing to the ranks of MEPs representing parties ranging from the Communist party to the far-right.
Macron’s address was nevertheless generally well received. In a thinly veiled reference to Russia, Macron said the EU was battling against “authoritarian powers ... with a clear strategy to call into question the multilateral system”.
“We are seeing authoritarianism all around us and the response is not authoritarian democracy but the authority of democracy,” he added.
The French president also claimed that the true European political identity differed from that of “our American ally” that was “rejecting multilateralism, free trade and climate change.”
He repeated his calls for reform of the eurozone, a digital tax, re-engagement with voters ahead of the European parliamentary elections next year, and moves to protect the continent’s sovereignty in areas ranging from copyright to data.
He said: “People say people don’t want Europe ... They propose yellow brick roads and want to take their people off on an adventure.
“Others affirm that we shouldn’t rush things too fast: that would be playing the game of the populist. This is the familiar mood music of paralysis... I think all of this is terribly wrong.
He also counselled against allowing the accession of the Balkan states to the EU until the bloc had reformed.
Macron later hosted a lunch for the parliament’s group leaders, including Farage, who is co-leader of the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy. The former UKIP leader had promised ahead of the meeting that he would “ruin his lunch”.