Brussels (CNN)Europe is deeply engaged in a continent-wide battle over its future. Euroskeptic populists are trying to undermine the European Union from within, while those speaking up for a closer bloc, like former Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt, are doing so louder than ever.
Europe will 'die from inside' if far-right populists triumph, top EU figure says
"It's not a question of more or less Europe. It's a question of different," Verhofstadt says speaking to CNN in his spacious Brussels office. "We need a different union because this union will not survive the 21st Century."
On paper, the 66-year-old is not the sort of person you would expect to hear using such fatalistic language about the European Union's future.
In the post-Brexit era, Verhofstadt is a held up by Europhiles as a poster boy for the European project.
His style of politics divides opinion. The British Sun newspaper recently described him in an editorial as a "curtain-haired slimeball" and the "most repugnant figure in Brussels." However, when he recently addressed a group of anti-Brexit protestors in London, he was cheered for saying that in the world of tomorrow, European countries needed to "work together".
As the European Parliament's Brexit coordinator and leader of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, he has made no secret of his desire for a more integrated bloc where European institutions would have greater power.
"The big problem we have in Europe is the enormous distance between the European dream, shared by more Europeans than ever, and then in practice the European Union, which is absolutely not seen as the translation of the European dream," he says.
Verhofstadt, known for his often combative oratory, is scathing about the populist movements and parties running on a Euroskeptic platform in this week's European parliamentary elections.
Italy's deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega Nord party, is openly planning to form a large, powerful Euroskeptic bloc -- one opposed to European institutions being given more power -- following the elections that voters across Europe have previously treated as a protest ballot.
Euroskeptic parties could potentially win up to 35% of seats. And if Salvini succeeds in bringing groups from countries all over the bloc together, a huge gang that was once on the fringes of European politics will be inside the halls of power, able to push for their own version of reform.
"Reform? I don't call that reform. I call that the kiss of death," Verhofstadt says of Salvini's plan for the EU. "Instead of beating it from outside it will die inside."
While many bureaucrats and politicians in Brussels have been accused of sticking their heads in the sand and ignoring the threats facing the EU, Verhofstadt sees challenges both inside and outside of Europe.
"The world is developing into one not of nation states, but of empires. China is an empire. India is an empire. The US is an empire. We need to create a European Union that is capable of defending our interests," he says.
And he doesn't see Europe's internal and external threats -- populism and a changing world order -- as unrelated issues.
Nationalist politicians often talk about reclaiming their country's sovereignty, stripping away centralized power from Brussels.
Verhofstadt says this is the wrong answer to Europe's challenges and points to the Council -- one of the key institutions of the EU -- as something that isn't working in its current form.