Instead of celebrating the 25th anniversary of the summit that reinforced the goal of an ever-closer union, the European Union's Commission chief lambasted some member states that refuse to apply common rules and said the bloc needs to rethink a looser relationship for those not fully committed.
For those who sought to go it alone, Jean-Claude Juncker warned Friday that they faced a tough future.
Juncker acknowledged a quarter century after EU leaders agreed on the Maastricht Treaty for a tightly knit unity that breakaway Britain and others had changed conditions to the extent that he was considering a system where a core group of nations would be linked less closely to members in "a different orbit."
The 28-nation EU has been rocked by the British exit referendum, and acrimonious relations with some eastern members on migration and constitutional law. The EU has come under further pressure from hundreds of thousands of migrants seeking entry and the inability of member states to smoothly deal with it. And, despite the timid signs of an economic upturn, high unemployment and debt still creates division between the rich and poorer member states.
It turned the symposium to celebrate the landmark treaty into a less than joyful event where worries about the common future cast a pall over what the closer monetary and political unity had brought.
As Luxembourg's finance minister in 1991, Juncker was there at the cradle of the Maastricht Treaty when 12 EU leaders have agreed to expand their powers to help achieve greater stability and prosperity. They hammered out a compromise setting up a loose federation with a common foreign policy and a single currency by 1999. The deal came only after Britain was exempted from the single currency and rules governing workers' rights and other labor conditions.
Even with the British reservations, the accord marked a great stride forward, but also underscored the difficulties London would continue to pose.
"We really had impression we were making history," Juncker still insists. But now, as chief of the EU Commission, he feels "it is too hot in the kitchen for a certain number of member states," including Britain.
"We have to invent a different orbit for those of our European countries who don't want to be part of all the domains where we are trying to work together. This will not be a tragedy, this will not be a crisis," he said, instead calling it "a chance, make things clearer."
Quarrels between the EU headquarters and member states like Poland and Hungary over their constitutional duties have come to dominate the national agenda. And after Juncker pushed and EU nations approved a binding system to set quotas for members to take in migrants, some member states including Hungary refuse to apply it.
Juncker called it a watershed moment. "That is something new," he told the conference. "This is against this basic principle that the EU is a rules based system. It is no longer."
Yet, he said, leave the EU at your own risk. "Those who think the time has come to deconstruct, to put Europe in pieces, to subdivide us in national divisions are totally wrong. We won't exist as single nations without the European Union."