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EU leaders split on post-Brexit Europe

AFP , Friday 10 Mar 2017
Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May attends a news conference during the EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium, March 9, 2017 (Photo: Reuters)
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EU leaders clashed Friday over plans to build unity in the wake of 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 "multi-speed" 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.

"The motto is that we are united in diversity," Chancellor Angela Merkel said after the talks in describing what message would carry the day in Rome.

Leaders have stressed the need to pull together as the European Union comes to terms with Britain's seismic decision to leave the bloc.

The EU 27 will "work together to promote the common good on the understanding that some of us can move closer, further and faster in some areas, keeping the door open to those who want to join later," said a draft of the Rome proposals.

The wording clearly prioritises a "multi-speed" Europe and drew the ire from countries like Poland who are loathe to see EU heavyweights go it alone.

"We disagree with any talk of a multi-speed Europe," said Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo a day after fighting her EU leader counterparts over Tusk.

Szydlo skewered the EU's older members who "believe that they have the right to impose solutions, but we as newer members are entitled to have a say too."

Tusk, a former Polish premier, backed the drive for unity but also cautioned: "If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together."

European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker said any plans to integrate at different speeds after Brexit will not create a "new iron curtain" between east and west.

"This is seen as introducing a new dividing line, a new kind of iron curtain between the east and west. That is not the intention," Juncker said.

The struggle to forge a more unified future for Europe was overshadowed by the clash with Poland over Tusk's re-election as head of the European Council, which groups the bloc's political leaders.

Most of the 28 leaders -- Britain still being a member -- had hoped to push through Polish ex-premier Tusk's re-election on Thursday with a minimum of fuss so they could concentrate on the bloc's future.

Instead, they ran into outright opposition from the staunchly eurosceptic Polish government which cast the only "no" vote against 27 in favour.

Szydlo accused her EU partners of setting a "dangerous precedent" by railroading their pick over the opinion of the candidate's home government.

Szydlo, whose right-wing eurosceptic Law and Justice party has nursed a long and bitter enmity with the centrist Tusk, blocked the summit's final statement in response.

"It's not acceptable that one member says 'I don't want that', and then the other 27 are paralysed," Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel said of the Polish move as he arrived for the talks Friday.

Britain's May, who left Brussels after the first day of the summit, said she wanted to "get on with" leaving the European Union -- and her fellow EU leaders agreed.

The EU summit was May's last before her self-imposed deadline to trigger the Article 50 withdrawal process by the end of March.

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