25 Mar 2017 17:07 IST

EU leaders seek unity in Rome, despite Brexit and protests

Summit marks 60th birthday of founding Rome Treaty

Leaders of the European Union met in Rome on Saturday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bloc's founding treaty and demonstrate that the EU can survive the impending departure of major power Britain.

Under heavy security as the Italian capital braced for anti-EU protests later in the day and the risk of attacks such as that by an Islamic State follower in London last week, the 27 national leaders gathered in the Campidoglio palace where the six founding states signed the Treaty of Rome on March 25, 1957.

Conspicuous by her absence was British Prime Minister Theresa May, who will write to EU summit chairman Donald Tusk on Wednesday formally to announce that its second-biggest economy will leave the Union in negotiations over the coming two years.

Britain shunned the new European community at its creation, but finally joined in 1973. Its people voted to quit last June.

Without the so-called Brexit, it might have been a modestly hopeful summit in the palazzo where old foes France and Germany, with Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, signed the original treaty.

All the bloc's economies are growing after a slump that has blighted the past decade and recent border chaos has largely abated as refugees are, for now, being held in check.

But Brexit has undermined the self-confidence of a Union that has helped bring peace and growing prosperity to the continent, and has encouraged eurosceptic nationalists challenging governments from Stockholm to Sicily.

It has also amplified the petty frictions among the more than two dozen national governments and obliged leaders' aides to water down a grand birthday declaration of unity.

After days of carping from Poland and Greece, seeking to show home voters they were getting Brussels to give assurances about equal treatment and social welfare, the Rome Declaration the 27 will sign just before noon (1100 GMT) offers ringing phrases about peace and unity.

“We have united for the better,” the text concludes. “Europe is our common future.”

But it may disappoint those who think more ambition and coordination is the answer to malaise.

Papal message

At the Vatican on Friday, Pope Francis told them that their Union had achieved much in 60 years but that Europe faced a "vacuum of values". He condemned anti-immigrant populism and extremism that he said posed a mortal threat to the bloc.

“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,” said the Argentinian pontiff.

Their response, he said, should be to promote Europe's ideals and values with more vigour and passion.

He urged states to show more “solidarity", a vexed word today, where Germans complain Poles are not taking in refugees or Greeks bemoan a lack of debt relief from Germany.

And the first non-European pope in over 1,000 years reminded them of the diminishing share of the world's wealth and people in Europe. They were a “peninsula of Asia", Francis told them, urging them to remain open to the rest of the world.

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