BRUSSELS (AP) — The European Union's executive arm unveiled new ideas Wednesday to keep the bloc unified as Britain prepares to leave and far-right extremism casts a shadow over the EU project.
The European Commission foresees five possible scenarios for Europe by 2025: either carry on regardless; function as a single market only; do less but be more efficient; allow groups of member states to advance at their own pace; or do far more together.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that "it is the start of a process, not the end, and I hope that now an honest and wide-ranging debate will take place."
He wants EU leaders to discuss the so-called White Paper at their summit in Brussels on March 9-10. EU citizens and non-governmental organizations are also invited to comment.
The move comes with Britain set to launch by the end of March a procedure likely to result in its EU exit in early 2019.
No member has ever left before and that prospect — along with the refugee emergency and extremist attacks — has shaken Europe to its foundations.
France's far-right leader Marine Le Pen is threatening to follow Britain's lead if she wins the French presidential election in May. And Dutch anti-Islam firebrand Geert Wilders is also set to poll well in elections there in two weeks.
Juncker said debate on the future should focus on what Europe can — and cannot do.
"We shouldn't (try to) persuade people that we can simply conjure up the sun and the moon," he told EU lawmakers.
He noted in particular that EU institutions alone cannot fix things like rampant youth unemployment.
"We cannot produce miracles if national measures do not do enough," Juncker said.
In a joint statement, the foreign ministers of Germany and France said the ideas are "an important and valuable contribution" to the debate.
"In view of the enormous challenges Europe faces, we must not ratchet down our ambitions for the common European project," Germany's Sigmar Gabriel and France's Jean-Marc Ayrault said. "The EU is far more than an internal market."
They said the EU "must find better ways to deal with the member states' different levels of ambition to ensure that Europe better fulfills the expectations of all European citizens." They did not flesh out any details as to how that can be done.
Commission officials say no one scenario is preferred and that a combination of them, or something else entirely might be possible.
Three scenarios potentially pose big challenges to policymakers.
Carrying on as if nothing has happened would send a damning message to a public already deeply skeptical about the European enterprise while scaling back to just a single market trading entity could make it harder for people to cross borders or work abroad.
Many also oppose letting the EU do too much, which could concentrate more power in the hands of unelected officials in Brussels and raise the specter of a federal European super-state.
The debate in coming months will assess how much appetite there is among leaders to make profound changes to their club.
Some moves might require changes to the EU founding treaties; a series of constitution-like texts that have been painstakingly drawn up over the years and would require consensus to modify.
AP writer Geir Moulson contributed.