Twenty-seven EU leaders gathered in Rome on Saturday to pay homage to their 60-year-old integration project, celebrating its postwar founding ideals at a moment of fragility for the union, just days before Britain files to quit the bloc.
On a day that mixed vaulting tributes with mass-protests on the streets, the leaders met to renew their vows in the splendour of a Renaissance palace where six states signed the Treaty of Rome on March 25, 1957.
I lived behind the Iron Curtain for more than half of my life . . . back then, that really was a two-speed Europe
While avoiding the founding mantra of “ever-closer union” and acknowledging the menace of multiple recent crises, the 27 leaders declared that Europe had “united for the better” and would forge ahead towards a “common future”.
Donald Tusk, the European Council president, evoked his hometown Gdansk’s journey from wartime ruin to democratic prosperity as he called on Europe’s statesmen to “care for this great legacy inherited from the heroes of European integration”.
“I lived behind the Iron Curtain for more than half of my life . . . back then, that really was a two-speed Europe,” he said. “And that is why today I have the right to loudly repeat this simple truth: that nothing in our life is granted forever — that to build a free world requires time, great effort and sacrifice.”
It came a day after Pope Francis warned the assembled statesmen that the continent stood on the brink of danger without more “solidarity”. “When a body loses its sense of direction and is no longer able to look ahead, it experiences a regression and, in the long run, risks dying,” he said.
Europe’s show of unity came in the form of a 1,000 word declaration that attempts to sketch principles for the union to advance another decade. Although Greece and Poland raised drafting quibbles in recent days, their objections were overcome to allow all 27 leaders sign the text.
The event came as Britain prepares to notify on Wednesday of its intention to leave the union, starting talks to separate a closely entwined economy that is the size of 20 member states.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, described meeting to mark the achievements of the union without Britain’s Theresa May as a “very sad moment”. Brexit was “a tragedy”, he said.
On Saturday itself high politics and diplomacy were largely set aside for a day of symbolism and ceremony. After solemn speeches and a signing session, leaders met for a short lunch and a photo-call.
The setting was the Palazzo dei Conservatori and its Horatii and Curiatii hall. Here leaders packed the same room where the Rome treaty was signed against the backdrop of a fresco showing ancient Roman families concluding a bloody feud. Ceremonies commenced with leaders standing to the union’s anthem, the Ode to Joy.
Outside noisy central Rome came to a near-standstill, with roads closed, 3,000 police on the streets and snipers on the rooftops. Further afield protesters massed for demonstrations against a union buffeted in recent years by financial crisis, uncontrolled migration and political instability.
Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian premier and host for the celebrations, noted that the dismay growing with a union that had “acted too late” to the challenges of globalisation. “We cannot stop when around us the entire world is moving, and unfortunately we did,” he said.
“That triggered in public opinion a crisis of rejection, and brought nationalism, that we have thought we left behind.” Here in Rome, he said, “the EU is choosing to start again”.
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