Leaders Gather in Berlin for EU 50th

The bloc's anniversary party will feature the signing of a controversial political declaration intended to express support for a new EU treaty

EU leaders will this weekend gather for a grand birthday feast in Berlin celebrating half a century of European integration. But wrangling surrounding the political declaration marking the EU's 50th birthday could see some of the party mood spoiled.

The EU's 27 heads of state and government are expected around 17.00 CET on Saturday (24 March) at the Berlin Philharmonic, where their current chair-in-office, German chancellor Angela Merkel, will kick off a raft of weekend birthday events in the German capital including a museum night, concerts and a European club night.

Ms Merkel last year received the consent of the then Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi to hold the festivities in Berlin rather than in Rome, where six nations in 1957 signed the Treaty of Rome laying the foundation for the current EU.

The German capital as a venue is seen as having the advantage of also symbolising Europe's reunification after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

After a concert in the Philharmonic, leaders will be taxied to the residence of German president Horst Koehler, where, according to the Daily Telegraph, Ms Merkel is expected to serve a €383 a pop Assmannshausen Hoellenberg Spaetburgunder wine picked to please French president and wine connoisseur Jacques Chirac.

Some leaders will then hit the town, with Dutch prime minister Jan Peter Balkenende expected to visit a museum or two. But the more serious part of the celebrations will take place on Sunday.

March 25, 1957 was the date of the signing of the Rome Treaty, with European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso last year proposing that EU leaders explicitly commit themselves on 25 March 2007 to the spirit of European integration by means of a "Berlin declaration."

On Sunday morning, the Berlin Declaration will be presented by Ms Merkel and signed by herself - representing all 27 member states - Mr Barroso, as well as European Parliament president Hans-Get Poettering.

Mr Barroso' idea of a "Berlin declaration" was inspired by the 1955 Messina declaration, which was signed by the EU's six founding members after a political crisis following the 1954 failure of plans for a European Defence Community.

The Messina Declaration triggered the revival of European integration and formed the basis of the Rome treaty, with Mr Barroso saying last year that the Berlin declaration should have a similar effect and break the EU's current institutional deadlock.

But political wrangling surrounding the Berlin statement has made this unlikely, with the Czech Republic opposing a passage in the text that is expected to say that the EU is "united in the common goal of renewing, in time for the 2009 European Parliamentary elections, the common foundation on which the European Union is built."

The paragraph is a reference to attempts to have a new EU treaty in place by 2009 - a goal opposed by Prague which does not want to be under pressure to accept a revised version of the EU constitution rejected by France and the Netherlands in 2005.

ONLY THREE SIGNATURES In order to overcome Czech opposition and other difficulties surrounding the anniversary declaration, Ms Merkel has dropped the initial idea of having the birthday text signed by all 27 leaders.

A three-signature text - as opposed to a declaration committing all EU leaders explicitly - is politically weaker, although EU diplomats are playing down the significance, keen not to spoil the party atmosphere.

But it was only last June when EU leaders themselves adopted conclusions on the declaration which called for "the adoption, on 25 March 2007 in Berlin, of a political declaration by EU leaders, setting out Europe's values and ambitions and confirming their shared commitment to deliver them, commemorating 50 years of the Treaties of Rome."

Ms Merkel has also come under fire for the secretive way she handled the preparation of the birthday text, which is expected to be two pages long and contain five chapters on the EU's achievements, its characteristics, its values, its challenges and its commitments.

The problems surrounding the birthday text - sent to EU capitals only on Thursday evening - do not bode well for Berlin's efforts to push a revised version of the EU constitution.

The constitution issue is also likely to come up during leader's working lunch on Sunday as will a formal farewell to President Jacques Chirac for whom this summit will be the last on the European stage.

Having witnessed the signature of the Berlin declaration and had the obligatory family photo before the Brandenburg gate, leaders will then jet home.

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