March 25, 2017
Brexit is a “tragedy” for the Europe Union, the bloc’s chief Jean-Claude Juncker lamented yesterday, as the leaders of the remaining 27 EU member states gathered in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the organisation’s founding treaty.
Theresa May, who will trigger Article 50 to begin Britain’s formal withdrawal from the EU on Wednesday, was conspicuous by her absence as the leaders stepped up to sign a new Rome Declaration setting out a vision for the future of the European Union without Britain.
The 1,000-word document was signed in the same room in Michelangelo’s sumptuously decorated Palazzo dei Conservatori on Rome’s Capitoline hill where the leaders of the six founding EU member signed the Treaty of Rome in 1957 – but this time contained no mention of “ever closer union”.
“Brexit, the exit of Britain, is a tragedy,” Mr Juncker said as the leaders proclaimed that the EU was “undivided and indivisible” despite the fierce disagreements that have roiled the bloc in recent years over immigration, the euro and the ongoing sovereign debt crisis.
Asked whether the Rome document represented the lowest common denominator of European ambition, Mr Juncker said the disagreements over the text, which Poland and Greece were threatening to refuse to sign just 24 hours earlier, represented strength, not weakness.
“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,” he said.
As he spoke, there were demonstrations across Europe in support of the EU, including in London where a ‘Unite for Europe’ march headed towards parliament, with dozens of protesters carrying yellow flowers to lay at a memorial for the Westminster attack victims.
However despite the promise of unity, within minutes of the ceremony closing some EU leaders made clear that the disagreements which had been put aside yesterday would soon resurface.
Alexis Tspiras, the Greek prime minister, said he had thought hard about refusing to sign the declaration in a protest against demands from Brussels and Berlin for further austerity measures in order to release the next tranche of Greece’s €86 billion bailout.
After the ceremony, Mr Tsipras said he had been satisfied by a reference in the declaration to “unparalleled levels” of social protection in Europe, but made clear he would continue to fight demands for further cuts to pensions.
“I was thinking about whether to sign or not,” he said, “but I believe we managed to put inside a very significant reference to a ‘social Europe’. Secondly, it’s an open-ended fight and we will keep struggling.”
Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and European Council president who was born only a month after the signing of the Treaty of Rome, gave an emotional address about growing up behind the Iron Curtain.
Describing his own struggle for democracy growing up in Gdansk and fighting with Poland’s Solidarity movement, he warned that if Europe could not unite, then the project that transformed his own life, would fail.
“Europe as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all,” he said. “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.”
Some leaders accepted there had been failure. Paolo Gentiloni, the Italian prime minister, said that Brexit indicated that the Europe Union was in need a fundamental re-think and had failed to respond adequately to the challenges thrown up by globalization.
He noted that the EU had suffered a “crisis of rejection” in Brexit, but also made clear that the EU was looking resolutely ahead to a future without Britain in its ranks: “There were six of us back then,” he said, “today we are 27”.
He added: “In facing that changed world, Europe turned up too late – on immigration, security, growth, jobs. We cannot, Jean Monnet urged, stop when around us the entire world is moving. But unfortunately we did, we stopped. We did.
“And that triggered in a segment of public opinion – which proved to be the majority in the United Kingdom – a crisis of rejection. It brought forward nationalistic sentiment that we thought had been consigned to the archives and so that is the real message which must emerge for us from today’s celebrations.”
Despite the promise of a ‘rebirth’ of the European Union after Brexit, regional analysts said that the Rome Declaration represented the limits of the EU’s ability to reform itself.
“The Rome summit has resulted in grand statements of intent, but substantial political limitations are going to limit the EU’s collective ability to radically alter the status quo,” said Mujtaba Rahman, head of the Europe practice at the Eurasia Group.
“So while EU leaders are now going to aim for a more multi-speed structure in some areas, the end result is likely to be more business as usual.”
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