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French President Emmanuel Macron has set out proposals to protect the European Union (EU) from foreign powers, cyber crime and political manipulation as populism continues to trouble the region ahead of Brexit and forthcoming European Parliament elections.
Publishing an open letter in European media outlets on Monday, Macron said that Europe was in danger and that Brexit, the U.K.'s departure from the EU due to take place on March 29, symbolized a "retreat into nationalism."
"Never since the second world war has Europe been so essential. Yet never has Europe been in such danger. Brexit stands as the symbol of that," he said Monday evening in a letter published in newspapers in all of the EU's 28 member states.
"Who told the British people the truth about their post-Brexit future? Who spoke to them about losing access to the EU market? … Retreating into nationalism offers nothing; it is rejection without an alternative. And this is the trap that threatens the whole of Europe," Macron added.
Macron said Europe was a "historic success" of reconciliation and a "project" that continued to protect its citizens but said there was a risk of complacency and what he called the "trap of the status quo."
"Europe, like peace, can never be taken for granted," Macron said, adding that "now is the time for a European renaissance" as he called on Europeans to resist "the temptation of isolation and division, I propose we build this renewal together around three ambitions: freedom, protection and progress."
The French president's letter comes amid fraught last-minute Brexit negotiations ahead of decision time over the deal, and a few months before European Parliament elections in May where populist, anti-establishment and nationalist parties are expected to perform well.
If so, this would continue a worrying trend for politicians like Macron and Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel who have seen their parties lose voters amid a backlash against their immigration policies and economic reforms.
Centrist Macron became president in May 2017 after beating far-right candidate Marine Le Pen and her National Rally party (previously the National Front), allowing Brussels to breathe a sigh of relief. Nonetheless, far-right parties continue to perform well in Germany and in Italy, where the right-wing Lega party is the dominant force in the country's coalition government.
In his letter, Macron proposed the creation of a 'European Agency for the Protection of Democracies' "to provide each EU member state with European experts to protect their election process against cyber-attacks and manipulation."
He also said the EU should also ban the funding of European political parties by foreign powers. "Our first freedom is democratic freedom: the freedom to choose our leaders as foreign powers seek to influence our votes at every election," he said.
Macron's comments come after widespread concerns that Russia has funded far-right parties in Europe in a bid to destabilize the region's political environment. There have been reports suggesting links between Russia and funding for populist causes and parties in Europe including the Brexit campaign, Le Pen's nationalist party and Lega in Italy.
Macron is well-known as a promoter of European integration and progress towards an "ever closer union'" of EU members and peoples – one of the principle objectives of the EU enshrined in the 1957 Treaty Establishing the European Community (commonly known as the Treaty of Rome).
On Tuesday, Macron's letter received a positive response from Germany's Justice Minister Katarina Barley, who tweeted her thanks to Macron and said "Europeans must come together."
Many European citizens have balked at ceding more sovereignty to the administrative heart of the EU in Brussels, however, and that resentment is seen as a driving factor behind euroskepticism, and Britain's 2016 referendum on EU membership which produced a shock result that has reverberated around Europe.
In his letter, Macron again called for more integration and the creation of more EU institutions to protect and defend Europe, its borders, citizens and workers. As well as proposing the aforementioned 'European Agency for the Protection of Democracies,' Macron's other proposals included the creation of:
Macron said the conference would allow the EU to define a roadmap that translates these key priorities into concrete actions. "There will be disagreement, but is it better to have a static Europe or a Europe that advances, sometimes at different speeds, and that is open to all? In this Europe, the people will really take back control of their future," he said.