The European Union’s remaining 27 leaders will declare the EU to be “undivided and indivisible” at an anniversary summit today, despite the looming reality of Brexit and weeks of bitter disagreement over the text of the Rome Declaration setting out the future of troubled bloc.
The EU leaders will put on a brave face when they gather for a ‘unity summit’ on top of Rome’s Capitoline Hill and renew the EU’s marriage vows in a ceremony to mark 60 years since the signing of their founding document, the 1957 Treaty of Rome.
Looming over the summit will be Theresa May’s decision to trigger Article 50 next week and begin formal talks to secede from the Union – a reality reflected in the fact that Mrs May will be absent from Saturday’s line-up of leaders.
Preparations for celebration have been marred by deep divisions among EU members, with Poland and Greece both threatening to refuse to sign a formal declaration unless given concessions on issues, including immigration and austerity.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission tried to brush off suggestions that Britain’s absence would be “the elephant in the room” – joking to a BBC interviewer that Mrs May was “not an elephant”.
However Mr Juncker conceded that Europe’s increasingly fractious membership were struggling to agree on how to handle migration, deal with multiculturalism and put the single currency on a sustainable track.
"We are not in the best form and shape we could be in,” he admitted.
The divisions in Europe – split east-west over values and immigration and north-south over austerity and the euro – were highlighted by the tortuous drafting process of the two-page Rome Declaration which was watered down in successive versions to accommodate members’ objections.
Poland responded angrily to suggestions from Angela Merkel and Mr Juncker that Europe might accelerate moves to becoming a “multi-speed union” – a move which Warsaw feared would see richer, core EU states leaving newer members like Poland marginalised and out of pocket.
In the end, the draft agreed only that the EU would proceed at “different paces” while “moving in the same direction”, grudgingly satisfying Poland, whose conservative-nationalist government is at loggerheads with Brussels over anti-democratic media and judicial reforms.
Having threatened to embarrass Europe by refusing to sign the document – a threat the Poles carried out at the last European Council summit when they refused to sign off the summit findings – the Polish leadership signaled yesterday afternoon that they would agree to the document. Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, said that Poland didn’t wish to leave Europe, but did want to be treated with respect.
“We want a Union of free and equal nation states,” he said.
The drafting process also exposed Europe’s increasingly bitter north-south divide over austerity and the euro as Greece threatened not to sign off on the text in a row over German and IMF demands for further pension cuts in order to receive the next tranche of Greece’s 86bn euro bailout.
The draft text proclaimed in its opening paragraph that the European Union was a major economic power with “unparalleled levels of social protection and welfare” – an pledge that Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, said Europe was increasingly failing to live up to.
Greece has cut pensions 12 times since it signed up to its first bailout in 2010, and Mr Tsipras – who also eventually agreed to the text – wrote to Mr Juncker asking him to confirm whether the social commitments were valid for “all member states without exception, or for all except Greece?"
"This isn't our Europe," Mr Tsipras added bitterly on arriving in Rome. "We want to change this Europe, to say no to the Europe of fear, of unemployment, of poverty, and say yes to the Europe that takes care of social needs.”
Regional analysts said the disputes over the Rome Declaration reflected the twin crises facing the European Union – the ongoing failure to resolve the structural flaws in the euro and the failure to tackle immigration and border security issues.
“Europe needs to find a new, multi-tier way to move forward that allows groups with similar interests to integrate without alienating the rest,” said Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform, a pro-EU think-tank.
“The EU will survive Brexit, but the Rome summit will only be useful if it highlights the problems facing the Union. The danger is that it could all feel too self-congratulatory,” he said.
Despite the tensions and the need to ensure cohesion in the EU after Brexit, Mr Juncker said that the EU was not “hostile” to Britain and would not seek to punish the UK when the negotiations get under way this year.
“We are not in a hostile mood when it comes to Brexit because I do think, and I do want, and I do wish to have with Britain in the next decades a friendly relationship … we’ll negotiate in a friendly way, in a fair way and we are not naïve,” he said.
“I don’t want others to take the same avenue [as the U.K.] because let’s suppose for one second that others would leave. Two, three, four, five: that would be the end.”
Italian security forces threw a security cordon around the city as the first EU leaders arrived last night, with police dinghies patrolling the Tiber River and some 5,000 officers including bomb-sniffing dog units deployed on the streets amid reports that anarchists might try and disrupt proceedings.
Several EU leaders arrived early for an audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican, but the Pontiff pulled no punches in addressing the bloc’s problems, admonishing Brussels for losing touch with ordinary people and calling on EU leaders to make “practical decisions” to improve lives.
"Sadly, one frequently has the sense that there is a growing ‘split’ between the citizenry and the European institutions, which are often perceived as distant and inattentive to the different sensibilities present in the Union,” he said.
"Today the European Union needs to recover the sense of being primarily a “community” of persons and peoples.”