BRUSSELS - European leaders at a meeting Friday were divided over the idea of accepting a multi-speed Europe - threatening to deepen tensions at a Brussels summit later this month.
At the meeting, Poland was the most vocal in its efforts to quash the concept. The idea of multi-speed allows some member states to go faster, or slower with European integration than others on certain policies and topics.
Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo accused French President Francois Hollande of trying to "blackmail" Poland, in a bitter dispute over EU leader Donald Tusk. The Polish government is angry about the re-election of their fellow-countryman Tusk as European Council president.
"If someone says 'you're not behaving properly so you won't get the money', that's unacceptable," she told reporters after the meeting.
France, Germany and Italy back the multi-speed Europe concept - but Poland and its former communist neighbors fear being left behind if their stronger partners integrate in more areas, especially the eurozone.
Poland is the biggest net recipient of EU funds - in 2015 it received $14.2 billion from the EU. The budget will come under a huge strain when the UK - one of the biggest net contributors - leaves.
Britain's exit from the EU is a significant rupture. Fears that the bloc itself could implode are why its leaders see the need for a new plan to reinvigorate the European project ahead its 60th birthday, and make it fit for future challenges.
Emphasis on maintaining political unity
A multi-speed EU is one of five options presented by EU Commissioner Jean-Claude Juncker earlier this month.
Juncker stressed that a multi-speed Europe in some ways already exists and that no treaty changes are needed.
“Even inside euro group, only 10 member states out of 19, having the euro as a common currency, are in favor of the financial transaction tax. So even in the smaller group of the Euro member states we have two groups.”
There is no consensus yet between EU member states about the way forward, Council President Tusk told reporters at EU headquarters in Brussels:
“Some expect systemic changes, losing intra-EU ties and strengthen the role of nations in relation to the community. Others, quite the opposite, are looking for new deeper dimensions of integration. Even if they would apply only to some member states.”
Tusk says he will urge EU member states “to maintain political unity”.
At a time when the EU is facing both internal and external challenges, the conflict with Poland could have a negative impact on Brexit negotiations.
The main issues on the agenda were defense, unemployment, migration and the western Balkans. The Balkan region has been trying to comply with reforms needed to eventually join the EU.
The EU Summit described the situation in the region as “fragile” but also “reaffirmed its unequivocal support for the European perspective of the western Balkans”. This is also partly due to Russian pressure and interference in the western Balkans.
British Prime Minister Theresa May was only present on Thursday, while the remaining 27 leaders continued discussions without her on the future of Europe on Friday.