EU leaders to debate Macron's grand plan

Tallinn (AFP) –


EU leaders will meet over dinner in Estonia on Thursday for a frank debate on the future of Europe, featuring first impressions of French President Emmanuel Macron's new vision for the bloc.

Most of the European Union 28's leaders are coming to Tallinn, including British Prime Minister Theresa May, although Brexit negotiations are not expected to be on the menu.

The discussion on the EU's future will take place over an informal supper Thursday with a second day on Friday devoted to digital issues, a priority for tiny Estonia, which holds the bloc's six-month rotating presidency.

In a major speech in Paris on Tuesday, the 39-year old Macron called on his EU partners to recommit themselves to a stalled European project shackled by Brexit, the rise of populism and the migrant crisis.

His speech came days after German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the EU's most powerful leader, won a fourth term in a vote which nevertheless saw historic inroads by the country's hard-right.

Merkel and Macron will meet face to face on Thursday ahead of the summit, the French presidency said.

With media in Tallinn kept at bay, the European leaders will be given an open forum for a "frank and informal" discussion, without any agenda, EU President Donald Tusk said in a letter inviting them to the meeting.

The young French president will be the first to take the floor, which will then spark the discussion by the leaders, EU officials said.

- 'Meaningful discussion' -

"Clearly the ingredients for a meaningful discussion are there," said Margaritis Schinas, spokesman for European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Juncker himself set out his own vision for a more deeply integrated European project in his annual State of the Union speech earlier this month, which shared many of the same themes as Macron's EU vision.

The discussions will be held over a three-hour dinner at the Kadriorg Palace in Tallinn, Estonia, a former summer palace for the Russian Tsars that is now a national museum.

Spain's Mariano Rajoy is expected to be the only major no-show due to the crisis over the independence referendum planned in Catalonia at the weekend.

Macron's proposals for a post-Brexit shake-up of the EU include a finance minister, budget and parliament for the 19-member eurozone, as well as an EU-wide "rapid reaction force" to work with national armies.

Merkel, who is now seeking new allies to rebuild a ruling coalition in Germany, on Wednesday welcomed the "European passion" in Macron's idea but said it was too soon to judge his concrete proposals.

Germany has widely been seen as trying to get Macron to ease back on his most radical ideas.

Macron also included a new type of tax on technology giants like Facebook and Apple -- based on how much value they create in a country rather than their profits -- a proposal that the leaders will discuss on Friday.

- Too soon -

Estonia bills itself as the avant-garde of the digital revolution and originally called the talks to help bring the rest of the bloc up to speed.

However, the uncertain German vote, Macron's speech and the stalled divorce talks with Britain are foremost in European minds.

May meets her EU counterparts as British and EU officials close a fourth round of negotiations in Brussels.

Tusk, who coordinates EU summits, on Tuesday said divorce negotiations were still falling short and it would be too early at Tallinn to launch talks on future ties between Britain and the EU, a big demand by London.

The talks in Tallinn follow other EU summits on the bloc's future in Bratislava, Malta and Rome which were all held without Britain.

At the Rome summit in March, the EU's 27 remaining leaders renewed their vows, celebrating the troubled bloc's 60th anniversary with a commitment to a common future.