* French president calls for a “European renaissance”
* Macron sets out plans for European Parliament elections
* Macron fuels debate as Merkel prepares her exit
* EU faces series of challenges including Brexit
By Jan Strupczewski
BRUSSELS, March 5 (Reuters) - A call by French President Emmanuel Macron for reforms of the European Union to pave the way to a “European renaissance” won mainly just polite support on Tuesday from other European leaders.
Some officials portrayed Macron’s reform plan as part of a bid to become the new leader of Europe as Angela Merkel prepares her exit as German chancellor, and suggested it was at least partly intended to boost his waning popularity in France.
His proposals, unveiled in an open letter to citizens of Europe that was published in newspapers across the EU, are to protect and defend Europe’s citizens while giving the 28-nation bloc new impetus in the face of global competition.
Britain is preparing to leave the EU, and elections to the European Parliament take place in May. The EU also faces a more assertive China and challenges from Russia, and has differences with the United States, especially over President Donald Trump’s “America First” policies.
“The German government supports engaged discussions about the direction of the European Union,” said a spokesman for the government in Germany, the EU’s biggest member state. He declined to give further details.
The importance of Berlin’s backing for any change in the EU, or lack of it, has become clear since Macron’s vision of deeper integration among the 19 countries that use the euro currency failed to materialise after 18 months of EU talks.
European Council President Donald Tusk, who chairs EU leaders’ summits, focused on only one aspect of Macron’s reform drive — the creation of a European Agency for the Protection of Democracies to protect EU countries from outside cyber attacks and meddling in elections.
“I agree with Emmanuel Macron. Do not allow external anti-European forces to influence our elections and decide on key priorities and new leadership of EU,” Tusk said.
The European Commission, the EU executive, saluted Macron’s call as a contribution to the debate about Europe but said most of the ideas had already been implemented or were under way.
“We would like to point out that a number of the elements that were presented by the president tally with the structures that already exist, or which the Commission has already proposed and is implementing,” a Commission spokesman said.
Some EU officials were less diplomatic when speaking on condition of anonymity. They ascribed the timing of the proposals to Macron’s desire to boost his popularity ratings in France before the European Parliament elections in May.
“People are seeing it as a bit ridiculous that he keeps thinking he reinvents the wheel,” one official said. “He is a solid pro-European but there’s not much in there that isn’t already done or adds value”.
Some officials said that while becoming Europe’s main leader was undoubtedly appealing for Macron, his immediate aim was to set out reforms that might help him repeat his success in France’s 2017 presidential election, when he ran on a pro-European agenda.
“This letter should be read more in a domestic French context than in a European one,” a second EU official said.
Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel offered selective support to the raft of ideas proposed in the Macron editorial.
“Support for Emmanuel Macron’s proposals for a new impetus for the European project. Minimum wage, climate investments, Security and Defense Council, multi-speed Europe,” Michel said n Twitter.
The most ringing endorsement came from one of the smaller EU member states. “I fully support the proposals of Emmanuel Macron in his ambitious words about the future of Europe,” Luxembourg Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel wrote on Twitter.
Backing also came from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, a strong critic of the EU though his country is a member state.
“This could mark the beginning of a serious European debate,” Orban said in a statement sent to Reuters by email.
“In the details, of course, we have differences of views, but far more important than these differing opinions is that this initiative be a good start to a serious and constructive dialogue on the future of Europe,” he said.
Reporting By Jan Strupczewski and Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels, Andreas Rinke, Michelle Martin and Joseph Nasr in Berlin, Editing by Timothy Heritage