PARIS (Reuters) - Emmanuel Macron will become on Thursday only the second sitting French president to win the prestigious Charlemagne Prize for offering a “vision of a new Europe”, and Germany’s Angela Merkel will deliver the speech commending his efforts.
But, while lavish in her praise for the 40-year-old Macron since he swept to power a year ago, the German chancellor is ironically proving the biggest obstacle to his ambitions for a more politically and economically integrated Europe.
Macron will receive the award - given out annually since 1950 - at a ceremony rich in symbolism in the Coronation room of Aachen town hall in Germany. Aachen was the residence of Charlemagne, often called the “father of Europe”, who managed to unite much of western Europe in the early ninth century.
The French leader impressed the prize committee with his “vision of a new Europe and the re-establishment of the European project”. In their citation, they call Macron “a head of state with a claim to European leadership”.
Francois Mitterand was the last sitting French president to receive the award, winning it jointly with German Chancellor Helmut Kohl in 1988.
Merkel, in power since 2005 and the longest serving European Union leader, sometimes dubbed the “Queen of Europe”, has demonstrated her personal esteem for Macron in agreeing to deliver the “laudation”. She herself received the prize in 2008.
Yet she has largely poured cold water on Macron’s ideas for reviving the EU, which include a stand-alone budget for the single currency bloc, a single finance minister, and other steps to reinforce economic and monetary union.
Despite their leader’s hesitation, 82 percent of Germans like Macron’s attempts to advance the EU with a series of reform proposals, according to a survey for German broadcaster ARD that was published on Wednesday.
But some Germans have reservations about his proposals to work more closely on financial policy, with 48 percent saying those ideas go too far while 42 percent do not think they do.
While Macron and Merkel continue to promote common initiatives on migration, defence and security, they are politely at odds on economics and finance, with Merkel reluctant to take steps that could be construed as Germany bearing greater liability for other euro zone countries’ problems.
The euro zone often looks to France and Germany, the twin “motors” of Europe, to take the lead on reform plans. In that vein, Macron and Merkel have promised to come up with specific proposals ahead of a summit in June.
But little progress has been made and officials close to Macron say he has lowered his ambitions, despite having made Europe a central plank of his presidency.
Merkel has sought to paper over gaps in their positions.
“Since taking office he has, with much elan, with much hope, provided Europe with important impetus,” she said in her weekly podcast.
On Monday, Merkel said France and Germany agreed on “most fundamental issues related to Europe” even if they had different “emphases” about how to proceed.
Macron - as well as many others - will be listening closely to Merkel’s speech on Thursday for signs that she is prepared to meet him at least halfway on his EU ambitions.
Additional reporting by Michelle Martin in Berlin; Writing by Luke Baker; Editing by Gareth Jones/Mark Heinrich