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EUROPEAN UNION

France’s Macron warns growing EU divisions are like ‘civil war’

French President Emmanuel Macron warned on Tuesday that divisions between democracy and authoritarianism in Europe were becoming like a "civil war".

France's Macron warns growing EU divisions are like 'civil war'

In a speech to the European Parliament in Strasbourg that set out his  vision of a reformed EU, Macron called on the bloc to resist the siren song of populism.

The young French leader's call to arms comes after eurosceptic populists  won elections in Hungary and Italy, and as Brussels confronts Poland's 
right-wing government over the rule of law.

“There seems to be a sort of European civil war, where our differences and  sometimes our national egotisms can seem more important than presenting a 
united face to the world,” the 40-year-old president said.

“There is a fascination with the illiberal and it's growing all the time.”

Macron's election victory last year against far-right candidate Marine Le  Pen, and his ardent pro-Europeanism have made him the poster boy for those 
aiming for a revived post-Brexit EU to battle the challenges of populism.

Macron said he was concerned by the growing sense of “doubt” in several  European countries in the wake of the shock 2016 Brexit vote, which he said 
was creating divisions in the EU.

“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,” he told MEPs in the  eastern French city.

“I want to belong to a generation that will defend European sovereignty  because we fought to obtain it. And I will not give in to any kind of fixation 
on authoritarianism,” he added.

'France is back'

His speech comes just days after Hungary's right-wing Prime Minister Viktor Orban won a crushing re-election victory. Orban regularly clashes with Brussels but is a “hero” for US President Donald Trump's former strategist Steve Bannon.

Macron's words were welcomed by European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, who told parliament afterwards: “The true France is back.”

The French president also launched into a spirited defence of his decision to launch air strikes alongside Britain and the United States against alleged regime chemical weapons sites in Syria.

“Three countries have intervened, and let me be quite frank, quite honest — this is for the honour of the international community,” said Macron, who earlier this week said he had persuaded Donald Trump to keep US troops in Syria.

“These strikes don't necessarily resolve anything but I think they were important,” he said.

In terms of his European reforms, Macron has struggled to win support across Europe for all his proposals. 

His speech to MEPs is part of a charm offensive ahead of European Parliament elections in May 2019, the first after Britain's scheduled departure from the EU.

Later this week Macron will travel to Berlin for talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to try to boost flagging support for his plans for the future of the eurozone.

Macron said that France was ready to increase its contribution to the EU's 

first post-Brexit multi-year budget, which begins in 2020.

EU reforms

But Merkel's conservative CDU party pushed back on Monday against plans for deeper eurozone integration, including a separate eurozone budget and the 
expansion of the EU's bailout fund.

Any reforms have to be “in the European and in the German interest,” CDU secretary-general Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer told reporters.

Macron separately proposed on Tuesday to create a European fund for communities that take in refugees in a bid to tackle one of the most 
politically toxic issues facing the EU.

“I propose creating a European programme that directly financially supports local communities that welcome and integrate refugees,” Macron said.

EU leaders are set to adopt preliminary Macron-backed plans for eurozone reforms and for an overhaul of its troubled asylum system in June, but there 
is still a lot of work to do.

Fighting to push through reforms at home in the face of mass rail strikes, Macron also faced difficulties in the European Parliament, where his domestic En Marche party is not affiliated to any political group.

Merkel is due to address the European Parliament in November, officials said on Monday.

She made a joint speech with then-French president Francois Hollande in Strasbourg in 2015 in which they urged unity in the face of the migrant crisis.

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EUROPEAN UNION

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary

The euro on Saturday marked 20 years since people began to use the single European currency, overcoming initial doubts, price concerns and a debt crisis to spread across the region.

The Euro celebrates its 20th anniversary
The Euro is projected onto the walls of the European Central Bank in Brussels. Photo: Daniel Rolund/AFP

European Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen called the euro “a true symbol for the strength of Europe” while European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde described it as “a beacon of stability and solidity around the world”.

Euro banknotes and coins came into circulation in 12 countries on January 1, 2002, greeted by a mix of enthusiasm and scepticism from citizens who had to trade in their Deutsche marks, French francs, pesetas and liras.

The euro is now used by 340 million people in 19 nations, from Ireland to Germany to Slovakia. Bulgaria, Croatia and Romania are next in line to join the eurozone — though people are divided over the benefits of abandoning their national currencies.

European Council President Charles Michel argued it was necessary to leverage the euro to back up the EU’s goals of fighting climate change and leading on digital innovation. He added that it was “vital” work on a banking union and a capital markets
union be completed.

The idea of creating the euro first emerged in the 1970s as a way to deepen European integration, make trade simpler between member nations and give the continent a currency to compete with the mighty US dollar.

Officials credit the euro with helping Europe avoid economic catastrophe during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Clearly, Europe and the euro have become inseparable,” Lagarde wrote in a blog post. “For young Europeans… it must be almost impossible to imagine Europe without it.”

In the euro’s initial days, consumers were concerned it caused prices to rise as countries converted to the new currency. Though some products — such as coffee at cafes — slightly increased as businesses rounded up their conversions, official statistics have shown that the euro has brought more stable inflation.

Dearer goods have not increased in price, and even dropped in some cases. Nevertheless, the belief that the euro has made everything more expensive persists.

New look

The red, blue and orange banknotes were designed to look the same everywhere, with illustrations of generic Gothic, Romanesque and Renaissance architecture to ensure no country was represented over the others.

In December, the ECB said the bills were ready for a makeover, announcing a design and consultation process with help from the public. A decision is expected in 2024.

“After 20 years, it’s time to review the look of our banknotes to make them more relatable to Europeans of all ages and backgrounds,” Lagarde said.

Euro banknotes are “here to stay”, she said, although the ECB is also considering creating a digital euro in step with other central banks around the globe.

While the dollar still reigns supreme across the globe, the euro is now the world’s second most-used currency, accounting for 20 percent of global foreign exchange reserves compared to 60 percent for the US greenback.

Von der Leyen, in a video statement, said: “We are the biggest player in the world trade and nearly half of this trade takes place in euros.”

‘Valuable lessons’

The eurozone faced an existential threat a decade ago when it was rocked by a debt crisis that began in Greece and spread to other countries. Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Spain and Cyprus were saved through bailouts in return for austerity measures, and the euro stepped back from the brink.

Members of the Eurogroup of finance ministers said in a joint article they learned “valuable lessons” from that experience that enabled their euro-using nations to swiftly respond to fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Covid crisis savaged economies, EU countries rolled out huge stimulus programmes while the ECB deployed a huge bond-buying scheme to keep borrowing costs low.

Yanis Varoufakis, now leader of the DiEM 25 party who resigned as Greek finance minister during the debt crisis, remains a sharp critic of the euro. Varoufakis told the Democracy in Europe Movement 25 website that the euro may seem to make sense in calm periods because borrowing costs are lower and there are no exchange rates.

But retaining a nation’s currency is like “automobile assurance,” he said, as people do not know its value until there is a road accident. In fact, he charged, the euro increases the risk of having an accident.

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