Britain’s decision to leave the EU has been described by the Italian prime minister as “closed nationalism” that belongs in the past during a summit in Rome to celebrate the bloc’s 60th anniversary.
In an address at the Orazi and Curiazi Hall of the Capitol in the Piazza del Campidoglio, where the EU was founded six decades ago, Paolo Gentiloni expressed his discomfort with the motives behind the referendum result.
He blamed the EU for not responding adequately to the economic crisis of 2008, but said: “That triggered in part of public opinion, unfortunately the majority of public opinion in the United Kingdom, it triggered a crisis of rejection. It brought forward the closed nationalism that we thought has been closed down in the archives.”
The leaders of the 27 member states that will make up the EU after the UK’s departure assembled on Saturday to mark the day on which six nations signed what was to become the Treaty of Rome.
They signed a Rome declaration, which offered ringing phrases about peace and unity, and the importance of maintaining the union. “We, the leaders of 27 member states and of EU institutions, take pride in the achievements of the European Union: the construction of European unity is a bold, far-sighted endeavour,” it says.
“Sixty years ago, recovering from the tragedy of two world wars, we decided to bond together and rebuild our continent from its ashes.
“We have built a unique union with common institutions and strong values, a community of peace, freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law, a major economic power with unparalleled levels of social protection and welfare.
“European unity started as the dream of a few, it became the hope of the many. Then Europe became one again. Today, we are united and stronger: hundreds of millions of people across Europe benefit from living in an enlarged union that has overcome the old divides.”
The document stipulates that the EU will make progress on a social dimension, building on its citizens’ rights, and that some member states will enhance their cooperation, particularly in the field of defence.
The text concludes: “We have united for the better. Europe is our common future.”
Only one EU leader was absent: Theresa May was not invited to the “informal summit”, a description that allows the EU institutions to cut Britain out of events.
The prime minister will write to the president of the European council, Donald Tusk, on Wednesday, to formally announce that the EU’s second-biggest economy is to leave the union, a process that will involve two years of negotiations.
The UK was barely mentioned by any of the EU leaders at the summit, except as an example of the dangers of populism.
The president of the European commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said the Rome declaration was a good starting point for a wide-ranging discussion on the future of the bloc after Britain’s departure. “The atmosphere is now such that we can approach this with confidence,” he said.
“What we achieved in the days before Rome, and in the last few hours here in Rome, conveys something of an incipient optimistic mood because, contrary to what was assumed, there was no clash, no big dispute between several conceivable paths.”
Tusk said that sustained unity was the only way for the EU to survive, as it was buffeted by global crises.
“Europe as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all,” he told EU leaders. “Only a united Europe can be a sovereign Europe in relation to the rest of the world. Only a sovereign Europe guarantees independence for its nations, guarantees freedom for its citizens.”