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Macron’s go-it-alone style raises eyebrows in Europe

During a visit to a refugee shelter Macron announced that France would set up migrant processing "hotspots" in Africa, including in war-torn Libya, with or without the support of other EU member states.

French President Emmanuel Macron (R) bids farewell to Portugal’s Prime Minister Antonio Costa (front L) as he leaves the Elysee Palace, in Paris, following their meeting on July 28, 2017. Bertrand GUAY / AFP

France’s Emmanuel Macron, a europhile who celebrated his election to the strains of the EU’s anthem “Ode to Joy”, has caused surprise by going it alone on migration and picking a protectionist fight with top ally Italy, observers say.

Two controversial announcements Thursday — one by the French president, one by his government — have led Macron’s commitment to working with his EU partners on solutions to shared problems to be called into question. The first was on migration.

During a visit to a refugee shelter Macron announced that France would set up migrant processing “hotspots” in Africa, including in war-torn Libya, with or without the support of other EU member states.

“We’ll try to do it with Europe but we in France will do it,” he declared — his aides later conceding that the scheme was “not possible at the moment” because of Libya’s dire security situation.

In Brussels, officials were caught off guard by the unilateral plan aimed at preventing migrants piling into rickety boats bound for Europe.

European Commission sources said they had received assurances that France’s position was “completely aligned” with that of the bloc — but they still ruled out migrant centres based outside the EU of the type mooted by Macron.

No sooner had that foray by France’s crusading new leader been digested than his government antagonised Italy by announcing the nationalisation of a shipyard that had been promised to a state-run Italian firm.

Rome, already smarting over being sidelined by Macron on a ceasefire deal in its former colony Libya, reacted with fury to the move which stood in stark contrast to the anti-interventionist message that Macron hammered home on the campaign trail.

Macron insisted the move was temporary until the two sides reached a deal on joint ownership of STX that protected French jobs and assured Italy would play a “major role” in the shipbuilder.

But Italy was seething.

“Nationalism and protectionism are not an acceptable basis on which to conduct relations between two leading European countries,” Italy’s finance and economic development ministers fumed.

European disunity
Italy’s centrist Corriere della Sera newspaper said the affair had revealed Macron as “a nationalist”, while Germany’s Handelsblatt economic daily said it “cast a new light on his commitment” to Europe.

“How can Europe be united if a European partner is not considered a reliable shareholder?” Handelsblatt wondered, referring to the jobs argument put forward by France.

But in France at home the first nationalisation since 1981 was widely cheered, giving its youngest ever leader a boost after polls showed his ratings tumbling over his planned spending cuts.

Le Monde newspaper called it a “well-timed political act” that would help him win back support on the left.

“But Mr Macron is tarnishing his European image somewhat,” it noted.

A former government adviser said Macron’s EU flag-waving during the campaign masked a belief that Europe served chiefly to enhance France’s standing.

“He is committed to the European ideal, but far less so than to French sovereignty,” the adviser, who asked to remain anonymous, told AFP, adding: “Having good relations with Angela Merkel doesn’t change that.”

For Francois Heisbourg, chairman of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Macron is a man in a hurry, who brings to mind ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

“Like all new presidents he’s discovering his powers and giving into the temptation to use them to the max,” Heisbourg said.

‘Superman if he succeeds’
So far Merkel and other EU leaders have embraced the Frenchman’s can-do approach and been content to let him play the role of Europe’s top diplomat with US President Donald Trump and Russia’s Vladimir Putin.

But Stefani Weiss, director of the Brussels office of the Bertelsmann Stiftung foundation, warned Germany was starting to “look a little frustrated by this energetic president who is juggling a lot of balls.”

“We can only hope he is not overwhelmed by all the initiatives and not overestimating what he can do,” she cautioned.

So far Macron’s diplomatic efforts have mostly been crowned in success.

On Tuesday, he got the two rival authorities in lawless Libya to agree a conditional ceasefire.

But stemming the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean to Europe could seriously test his mettle.

“If he succeeds, everyone will say ‘he’s the boss, he’s Superman. But if he fails, they’ll say ‘those arrogant French’. It’s risky,” said Heisbourg.