By Gilbert Reilhac
STRASBOURG, France (Reuters) - The man expected to become the leader of France's center-right set out his vision for a multi-speed Europe on Thursday, rejecting the deeper integration sought by President Emmanuel Macron.
Speaking in Strasbourg, home to the European Parliament, Laurent Wauquiez said some European Union countries should be allowed to limit their commitment to the bloc to free trade, something that theoretically could allow Britain to re-engage.
If the 42-year-old is elected next month to lead The Republicans, his challenge will be to rebuild a once-powerful party that was blown apart by Macron's presidential and parliamentary election triumphs.
With Macron's fledgling Republic on the Move party dominating the center, Wauquiez is likely to take The Republicans to the right, fishing for support among eurosceptic National Front sympathizers.
The Republicans have only 100 lawmakers in the 577-seat National Assembly, after others split to work more closely with Macron, but are the largest opposition group.
"With 27 members, Europe isn't working. We have to do something," Wauquiez told reporters.
The EU should have a core of between six and 12 members states that would pursue closer cooperation on matters including tax harmonization and employment rights, he said.
Other members of the euro zone would form a second tier. Countries wanting only free trade would form a third tier, including Britain if it wanted.
"I cannot accept that everyone seems to be congratulating themselves that Britain is leaving," Wauquiez said.
In September, Macron painted a sweeping vision for European renewal, calling for the EU to work more closely on defense and immigration and for the euro zone to have its own budget.
Describing himself as a "committed European", Wauquiez rejected that as well as any plan to further enlarge the EU further.
"Macron's big mistake is to pit French sovereignty against the European project ... to think we need more federalism. I on the other hand believe in a union of nation states," Wauquiez told Le Figaro.
Wauquiez served as the party's interim leader last year after former president Nicolas Sarkozy quit the post to contest the party primary for a second crack at the presidency.
One Paris-based senior EU diplomat described him as a "tough politician" whose leadership of The Republicans would squeeze the political space open to the National Front.
The National Front suffered its own bruising in the elections, with its leader Marine Le Pen trounced by Macron in the second round of the presidential vote and the party performing weakly in the parliamentary election.
Le Pen has softened her anti-EU stance in past weeks as her far-right party, split by deep internal divisions over its view on Europe, seeks to reinvent itself.
(Additional reporting and writing by Richard Lough in Paris; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)