The EU 27 leaders recommitted their vows to European integration in Rome on Saturday (25 March) amid warnings that the bloc’s unity remains fragile.
The heads of state and government met in the same Renaissance-era palace where the six founding countries signed the Treaty of Rome on 25 March 1957, to establish the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community (Euratom).
The treaty is now officially celebrated as the birth of today’s EU.
The mood was downbeat, as the EU’s 60th anniversary was celebrated just four days before the UK notifies its withdrawal request, the first member ever to leave the union.
The symbolism of EU leaders gathering among the ruins of the ancient Roman empire could not be more telling, as the union struggles to renew itself in the face of rising populism, nationalism, the shock of Brexit, the US’s increasingly unpredictable policy, and renewed Russian threats.
The celebrations concentrated on reminders of the EU’s main achievement of securing peace and prosperity for 60 years after the destruction of the Second World War.
Leaders signed a declaration that is designed to set out the path for European integration in the next 10 years.
In the so-called Rome declaration, EU leaders claim that “Europe is our common future”. They stress unity, which they say is the only way for the EU to be able drive “global dynamics”.
But the declaration flashed out few detailed goals for the next decade to reenergise European integration.
It pledges that the EU will listen better to the citizens, deliver results more efficiently, work more closely with national parliaments.
It also promises to protect EU citizens better with reinforced external borders, preserve the achievements in social protection, further develop the single market, and make the EU a global player despite its second largest economy, the UK leaving.
The Rome Declarations’s wording has been the centre of contention, with Poland and Greece making last minute objections, highlighting the deep divisions that marred the anniversary.
It remains to be seen if the Rome summit can give a boost to reforming and revitalising the EU that has come under fire from a rise in anti-establishment and nationalist forces across the continent.
In a highly personal speech European Council president Donald Tusk’s reminded fellow leaders what Europe meant.
The former Polish prime minister recalled how his hometown of Gdansk was destroyed by Hitler and Stalin, and how the Polish opposition movement against communism succeeded while clinging onto the idea of Europe.
“They were simple dreams: about human dignity, freedom and democracy. At that time we all looked to the West, towards a free and unifying Europe, instinctively feeling that this was the very future we were dreaming about,” Tusk reminded leaders.
He also used his personal experience to warn his colleagues about an EU where countries integrate at different pace.
“I lived behind the Iron Curtain for more than half of my life, where it was forbidden to even dream about those values. Yes, back then, that really was a two-speed Europe,” he said.
As thousands of supporters and opponents of the EU gathered on the street of the Eternal City, Tusk said he wanted to make everybody aware that “the European Union is not about slogans, it is not about procedures, it is not about regulations”.
“Our Union is a guarantee that freedom, dignity, democracy and independence are no longer only our dreams, but our everyday reality,” he said.
Tusk echoed Pope Francis’s words, whom leaders had met on Friday evening. The Pope warned that if it does not have a vision for the future it “risks dying”.
The pope also warned against falling into the false comfort that populism offers.
‘Not proud enough’
In his address on Saturday, Tusk warned that the unity of Europe took decades to achieve but it “takes a short moment” to destroy it, as devastation of the world war showed.
“Europe as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all,” he warned.
The European Council chief argued that beyond the call for unity, member states should go back to the basics, respect human rights and civil liberties, freedom of speech and freedom of assembly, checks and balances, and the rule of law.
“Prove today that you are the leaders of Europe,” he told heads of state and government.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker tried to add a more optimistic note, saying that “we are not proud enough of what Europe has achived”.
“Let us not lose perspective,” he said. “However daunting our challenges may feel today, they are in no way comparable to those faced by our founding fathers.”
In his speech, Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni admitted that the EU reacted too late to the challenges of globalisation.
“We cannot stop when around us the entire world is moving, and unfortunately we didn’t,” he said, adding that it brought nationalism back.
Eszter Zalan │EUobserver