EU heavyweights Germany and France are pushing for a multispeed Europe for countries wanting closer integration. But Poland opposes the plan because it favors looser integration, and also fears being locked out.
EU leaders clashed Friday over plans to build unity in the wake of the pending Brexit, a day after a row with Poland over Donald Tusk's re-election as the bloc's president underscored deep divisions.
European heavyweights Germany and France backed a "multispeed" Europe after Britain's divorce with the union despite opposition by eastern Europeans that fear being left behind.
EU leaders - without British Prime Minister Theresa May - struggled to draft a declaration that is to be unveiled at the March 25 summit in Rome to mark the EU's 60th birthday. Britain's exit from the bloc is now expected in 2019.
In describing what message should carry the day in Rome, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Europe's motto must be "that we are united, but also united in diversity,"
"We already have today a Europe of different speeds," she said, adding that the spirit should be that things are "open for every member state to participate; there is no exclusion."
French President Francois Hollande also sought to reassure wary partners.
"It's not about excluding anyone. It's about being able, for those who want to and without the treaties being revised ... to go more quickly, without closing the door on anyone," he said. "But as well, we cannot allow anyone to stop others who want to advance more quickly."
Poland's fruitless fight
European Council President Tusk, who chaired the final session of the two-day summit, said, "Our main objective should be to strengthen trust and unity within the 27. If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."
On Thursday, Poland's vain lone battle to block a second term for Tusk, a former Polish premier and archfoe of the current ruling party leader, was symptomatic of growing friction between the West and poorer, ex-communist east as Brexit leaves a hole in EU subsidy budgets.
EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker conceded that some countries fear this multispeed Europe could be "seen as introducing a new dividing line, a new kind of Iron Curtain between East and West."
But, Juncker said, "this is not a matter of exclusion, it is a matter or organizing progress for those who want to do more."
A day after her blistering exchange with her EU colleagues, Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo said that her country "will never agree to a Europe of different speeds because that would lead to the EU's disintegration."
But Merkel, Hollande and Juncker, all stressed that a repetition of existing possibilities for some countries to cooperate more in certain areas - such as the euro currency - would not mean the creation of permanent divisions to exclude some states.
bik/tj (AP, Reuters, AFP, dpa)