Macron reiterates importance of ‘refusing to allow others to decide for us’

French president’s Charlemagne Prize speech defies Trump and stakes claim on EU leadership

The dangerous events of the week loomed over the ceremony in Aachen, Germany, where chancellor Angela Merkel on Thursday gave French president Emmanuel Macron Europe's oldest and most prestigious award, the Charlemagne Prize.

Before the ceremony, Macron and Merkel issued a joint statement appealing for "moderation" and "de-escalation", after Israel and Iran exchanged fire in Syria for the first time overnight.

In her laudatio dedicated to Macron, Merkel said the escalation showed "it is a question of war or peace" in the Middle East.

“The time when one could simply count on the US to protect us is over,” Merkel said. “Europe must take its destiny in its own hands. That is our challenge for the future.”


That was exactly the message of Macron’s fourth major address on the future of Europe, after Athens, the Sorbonne and the European parliament in Strasbourg.


Macron was interrupted by applause 20 times in 35 minutes. Though he never named US president Donald Trump or the United States, the importance of "refusing to allow others to decide for us" ran like a thread through his speech.

"We made the choice to build stability and peace in the Middle East," Macron said, referring to the role of France, Germany and the UK in brokering the 2015 Iran nuclear accord. "We took a sovereign decision to carry it through. Other powers ... decided not to keep their word. Does that mean we are supposed to renounce our own choices? Are we supposed to give in to the worst policy?"

The US president has threatened to punish European companies that trade with Iran and to impose tariffs on European aluminium and steel starting next month.

“Who makes our trade choices?” Macron asked. “Who? Those who threaten us? Those who would blackmail us while explaining that the international rules they helped to elaborate have become worthless because they are no longer to their advantage? We Europeans are custodians of international mutlilateralism... We must not give in... We must not be weak.”

Internet giants

Macron chastised internet giants who exploit personal data and refuse to pay taxes, and petroleum companies who want to decide climate policy. The speech staked his claim to be the leader of a Europe that he envisages as “a geographic power, with its own policies on trade, climate change, the economy, food security and diplomacy”.

The speech was a plea for European sovereignty, which Macron sees as an antidote to a reckless US president. “If we accept that other powers, including allies, including friends from the darkest hours of our history, put themselves in the position of deciding on our behalf... sometimes subjecting us to the worst risks, then we are not sovereign,” he said.

Unity between France and Germany “is the precondition for all possibility of European unity, which alone will enable us to take action,” Macron said. But for all their complicity, he and Merkel are also rivals for the leadership of Europe. Macron has been disappointed by Germany’s tepid response to his European initiatives, particularly efforts to strengthen the euro zone.

‘Substantive’ accord

The two leaders have promised to present a “road map” for the euro zone at the end of June. Macron’s advisers say he wants “a substantive, not superficial, accord”.

Macron derided French and German stereotypes about each other “There are those in France who tell me to confront Germany, that Germany is egotistical and ageing, that she doesn’t want to reform Europe because it’s not to her advantage.”

Likewise, he said, “I hear those in Germany who say the French are not serious. They didn’t make their reforms and they want a Europe that will finance their deficits.”

In both cases, Macron said, the stereotypes were unfair. He nonetheless criticised French reluctance to revisit EU treaties and to lower public spending. And he singled out Germany’s “perpetual fetishism for budgetary and trade surpluses, that are always achieved at the expense of others.”

German resistance

French media frequently report that Macron’s ideas for the euro zone will go nowhere because of German resistance, but Macron apparently has not lost hope. He pleaded for “a stronger euro zone, more integrated, with its own budget for investment and convergence, because that’s the only way to allow all the states who want to go forward to do so.”

Macron summarised his ambition for Europe with four injunctions which he labelled “convictions,” “commandments” or “imperatives”. “Let us not be weak or passive... Let us not be divided... Let us not be afraid... Let us not wait.”

Aachen is near Germany's borders with Belgium and the Netherlands, and was the home of Emperor Charlemagne. The town elders who chose Macron for the prize cited the élan he has brought to Europe, his desire to "re-anchor Europe at the heart of societies" and his "make our planet great again" defence of the Paris accord on climate change.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is an Irish Times contributor