The European Parliament on Wednesday once again called for unity, but an undercurrent of concern showed fears for the bloc's future as it faced upcoming Brexit negotiations, the ongoing migration crisis, and continued economic uncertainty.
The debate also centered on the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome, which launched the European Economic Community, predecessor to the EU. At the 60th anniversary celebration, a solemn declaration is intended to be made and signed to indicate the "rebirth" of the EU.
"We cannot simply have a formal ceremony to recall the best 60 years of free Europe," said European Parliament President Antonio Tajani opening the debate on Wednesday.
"The anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome must first and foremost be an opportunity to bring Europe closer to its citizens," he asserted, addressing concerns that rising populism and distrust of Brussels has come from increased feeling of alienation for citizens from the bulk of European politics.
"We have to give specific responses to unemployment, youth unemployment in particular, terrorism and migration, by promoting our values in the world. Now more than ever what we need is unity in Europe," Tajani argued, before admitting, "We need to change the Union indeed, but we must not weaken it."
European Council President Donald Tusk gave an optimistic account of the March European Council meeting, calling the discussions between European leaders "constructive and open."
Still, Tusk confessed he understood why concerns around a "multi-speed" Europe, where some countries integrated more quickly and more deeply than others, needed to be discussed. He saw that the scenario, while controversial, would be sobering for people who want to weaken the EU.
"It is my hope that Rome will be a turning point in the reintegration of the Union. Not all politicians will be our allies, I am aware of that. But as paradoxical as it may sound, the majority of the citizens of the countries governed by the euroskeptics will be on our side," he added.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, for his part, was dismissive of the controversy, arguing, "This is not a white paper about a two-speed Europe. That's a misreading of it. And if Chancellor Angela Merkel hadn't mentioned it in her press conference before the Council meeting, no one else would have mentioned it either."
He went on to stress the European Commission's lack of interest in dictating policy, and his wish to leave behind the narrow view of the EU as simply an internal market in order to push for "a Europe of people."
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni saw the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome as an opportunity for the rebirth of the EU.
"I believe that first and foremost this should be an occasion to remind public opinion, to remind fellow citizens in Europe of what has been achieved over the last 60 years," he affirmed, "Recalling achievements helps us to think about the future," he insisted.
Gentiloni warned against underestimating the difficulties facing Europe, prioritizing solutions for ongoing economic trouble, the need for solidarity in the face of heavy migratory flows, and a unified front against populist nationalism.
"We cannot have a first-class and a second-class Europe, a Europe of the small countries and a Europe of the big countries, a Europe of the East and a Europe of the West," he said, confirming that the Union "cannot stand still." "It has a duty vis-a-vis its own citizens to provide solutions to the challenges and problems that face us."
Speaking on behalf of the Council of the EU presidency, Deputy Prime Minister of Malta Louis Grech argued that decisive action was needed in the current political climate, saying that the Rome Declaration should be followed up concretely.
Manfred Weber (Germany), leader of the European People's Party group, said: "We have to ensure that people in Europe regard Strasbourg and Brussels not as external forces that impose things on them while national politicians book common successes to the credit of the nation state. They need to accept responsibilities."
"Today, the problem of Europe is not the speed but the direction," said the Socialist leader Gianni Pitella (Italy). "We need a new direction for Europe that goes towards a strong social pillar and a powerful European investment strategy," he continued, before admitting that, "the more the EU is threatened, the more I believe in Europe."
Philippe Lamberts (Belgium), speaking on behalf of the Greens/EFA group, shared Pitella's view that the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome should be an opportunity for a "change of direction" for Europe. "We need Europe to use globalization to progress towards social convergence and strengthened democracy," Lamberts asserted.
"The ship is sinking and we should be asking ourselves why," said Raffaelle Fitto (Italy) on behalf of the European Conservatives and Reformers group, sharing his view that Europe had become too centralized and distant from ordinary citizens.