European Union leaders celebrated the bloc’s 60th anniversary at a special summit in Rome on Saturday during which they renewed their vows with a commitment to a common future without Britain.
Meeting without British Prime Minister Theresa May, the other 27 member countries signed a declaration of unity on the Capitoline Hill where six founding states signed the Treaty of Rome on March 25, 1957.
But days of wrangling about the wording of a 1,000-word Rome Declaration, May’s impending Brexit confirmation and tens of thousands of protesters gathering beyond the tight police cordon around the Renaissance-era Palazzo dei Conservatori offered a more sober reminder of the challenges of holding the 27 nations to a common course.
With the EU facing crises including migration, a moribund economy, terrorism and populism, as well as Brexit, EU President Donald Tusk called for leadership to shore up the bloc.
“Prove today that you are the leaders of Europe, that you can care for this great legacy we inherited from the heroes of European integration 60 years ago,” Tusk said in a speech.
The Rome Declaration that the leaders signed proclaims that “Europe is our common future”, and sets out the path for the next decade in a rapidly changing world.
“It is it a bit of a tighter squeeze in the room today” than when the original six states signed up, joked Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni after welcoming the leaders to the palazzo for a ceremony long on pomp and short on real politics.
“We have had 60 years of peace in Europe and we owe it to the courage of the founding fathers,” Gentiloni said, acknowledging that a string of crises had combined to bring the process of European integration to a standstill.
“When the iron curtain fell in 1989 we thought their dream had been realized but (recent crises) have shown us that history is anything but finished. We have to start again and we have the strength to do that. We have stopped in our tracks and this has caused a crisis of rejection by public opinion,” he said, noting Britons’ repudiation of the EU.
Others, however, are wary of such enthusiasm for giving up more national sovereignty — and also of others in the Union moving faster with integration. Poland’s nationalist government has led protests against a “multispeed Europe”, which it fears would consign the poor ex-communist east to second-class status.
European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker also insisted the EU could ride out recent storms.
“Daunting as they are, the challenges we face today are in no way comparable to those faced by the founding fathers,” he said, recalling how the new Europe was built from the ashes of World War II and voicing confidence that the EU would still be around to celebrate its 100th birthday.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters that leaders wanted to respond to people’s concerns, about the economy, immigration and military threats with “a protective Europe”.
The aim of the summit was to channel the spirit of the Treaty of Rome that Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and West Germany signed six decades ago to create the European Economic Community (EEC).
The treaty was signed in the Horatii and Curiatii hall of the Palazzo dei Conservatori, one of the Renaissance palaces that line the Michelangelo-designed Capitoline Square, and the political and religious heart of the Roman Empire in ancient times.
Police in the Eternal City were on alert not only for lone wolf attackers in the wake of the British parliament attack on Wednesday, but also violent anti-Europe demonstrators.
Around 30,000 protesters are expected to take part in four separate marches — both pro- and anti-Europe — throughout the day.
For Ernesto Rapani, an official of Italy’s right-wing euroskeptic Fratelli d’Italia party attending a demonstration in Rome, the bloc’s trade and financial rules are skewed in favor of Germany and have to change: “At the moment the union is convenient for Germany and not Italy,” he said.