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PRAGUE (Reuters) - Splitting Europe into two groups of countries with different integration aims is a bad idea that would weaken the union, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek said.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker proposed five scenarios in March for the European Union's future, ranging from reducing the union to a free-trade area through multi-speed integration to an overall deepening of the EU.
Speaking at the Reuters Central & Eastern Europe Investment Summit, Zaoralek said the EU needed to strive for a wide-reaching consensus in the family of 27 countries instead of encouraging different integration levels.
"The dual speed seems to me just like a precursor to further shrinking and decline. When you lose the ability to convince, win, include others, then you are on a path to shrink inwards," he said.
Zaoralek said Juncker's proposals missed the point.
"The crossroads are not drawn right. It is not integration or not-integration, the problem is whether we are capable of making structural changes in Europe," he said.
EU leaders are looking to prevent further setbacks the bloc has suffered from a British decision to leave the union, economic crises straining the euro zone, a surge in immigration and criticism over weakening democracy in Hungary or Poland.
The Czechs joined the EU in 2004 but have not entered the euro zone and have no plans to do so soon. Living standards remain far lower in the EU's east, contributing to a flow of workers to the west. Like other central European countries, the Czechs have strongly opposed a scheme to resettle migrants across the EU.
Zaoralek said a division in Europe could lead to the countries left on the fringes to be little more than "appendixes" sharing nothing but the single market.
Brexit is a big hit but has not brought honest enough reflection among the EU leaders, Zaoralek said.
"I don't have the feeling that we actually realized what in fact had happened," he said.
"Brexit laid bare the big problems that we are facing, these are imbalances, barriers created in Europe between the South and North, debtors and creditors, East and West, there are big differences in social spheres, living standards."
The two-speed Europe has, however, been dawning as the way forward with France and Germany in favor of the idea.
France's new President Emanuel Macron supported the "multi-speed" Europe idea that has been on a rise in Germany and other EU countries since Britain's decision to quit the bloc, which makes it more likely that a key decision-making circle could exclude the former communist capitals.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in March individual countries should be allowed to move ahead with their integration at varying speeds.
The Czech opposition has been less vocal than that of fellow former communist countries Poland and Hungary, who have been on a collision course with the EU.
Despite Europe's difficulties, Zaoralek said he believed Europe could plow through its woes, and that 2017 could be a year of consolidation after the tumultuous previous year.
The Czechs welcomed the election results in France earlier this month, and Zaoralek said the Dutch and French votes allowed for some optimism.
"In my experience, the centripetal forces are also very strong," he said.
Editing by Elaine Hardcastle