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The EU can prevent more Brexit style referendums by creating a two speed Europe, with an inner circle of countries deepening political integration and others frozen out, according to Portugal’s prime minister.
Antonio Costa said the EU was divided between those committed to the treaty goal of “ever closer union” and others, like the UK, which saw the European Project as a vehicle for trade and nothing more.
He said that a “fundamental debate” was needed on the future of the EU, with countries such as Hungary and Poland at loggerheads with Brussels over issues such as respect for the rule of law, gay rights and migration.
"There are two visions that are now passing through the different countries of the European Union," Mr Costa said in a speech at the Catholic University in Lisbon.
"Basically, it is whether the European Union is a union of values, or whether, on the contrary, it is primarily an economic instrument to generate economic value.”
He added, “The lack of understanding of this distinction has certainly led to the departure of the United Kingdom, which saw the European Union as a platform for generating value, but not something that resulted from sharing fundamental values.”
The idea of a two speed Europe has long been pushed by Emmanuel Macron, the French president, but is resisted by Germany, which fears it could lead to the pooling of common debt.
Mr Costa said on Monday it would prevent the need for a difficult and complex renegotiation of the Lisbon Treaty.
Most Eastern European countries, which joined the bloc in 2004’s “big bang” of EU enlargement, are wary of the idea. They fear it would impose a second class form of EU membership on them.
“We have to ask ourselves whether the best way is to rigidly implement [the Lisbon Treaty] it, or whether we should look at the European Union in a spirit of greater flexibility, assuming that, just as Schengen or the euro is not for everyone, we have to have variable geometries here in the future of the European Union," he said
The socialist leader said that some member states had hidden behind Britain, which fought to keep the EU as “primarily an economic instrument” during its EU membership rather than “a union of values”.
Those countries, such as the Netherlands, were now left exposed by Brexit, Mr Costa said.
In a veiled swipe at the Dutch, Mr Costa criticised richer member states who had resisted contributing more money to the EU Budget to help with recovery from coronavirus.
The Dutch were the most vocal opponents of the EU plan to pay out billions of euros in coronavirus aid in the form of grants rather than loans during marathon summit talks in July.
Hungary and Poland have blocked the approval of the EU Budget and stimulus package in protest at plans to make funding conditional on respect for the rule of law.
Brussels has raised concern over both countries' respect for democratic norms such as judicial independence.
Warsaw and Budapest were hit by EU legal action after refusing to take in a mandatory quota of resettled migrants from Italy and Greece, the hardest hit EU countries during the migration crisis.
Portugal will take over the rotating six month Presidency of the EU in January.