EU Leaders Pledge Unity Days Away From U.K. Exit TriggerBy , , and
European Union faces ‘unprecedented challenges,’ leaders say
Summit takes place amid heavy security in Italy’s capital
European Union leaders gathering in Rome on Saturday sought to reinforce the unity of the remaining member states, flagging a common defense as a priority, just four days before Britain officially sends notice it’s leaving.
U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s absence from the celebratory summit, marking 60 years since the Treaty of Rome created the bedrock for the EU, highlighted the division and sense of pessimism that’s gripping the 28-nation club. The 27 leaders who did show up published a declaration that stopped short of being a radical blueprint for the future.
“Europe as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all,” EU President Donald Tusk told the leaders in the frescoed hall on Capitol hill where the original treaty was signed. “Only a united Europe can be a sovereign Europe.”
Brexit wasn’t a topic for this summit but it still cast a shadow. The U.K., which joined the EU 16 years after the founding countries signed the Treaty of Rome, will remain a full member until withdrawal negotiations end. Yet, May decided her presence in Rome wouldn’t be appropriate.
“It is a very sad moment, I do think that Brexit, the exit of Britain, is a tragedy,” European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters before the meeting, according to The Associated Press. In his speech, EU President Tusk pointed out that “even in London” people were holding pro-EU rallies.
As they acknowledged the challenges, EU leaders see some indications for hope. There’s little sign that Brexit has triggered a domino effect across Europe, the nationalist Geert Wilders failed to convert an early poll lead into victory in this month’s Dutch elections and pro-EU candidates remain ahead of rivals for the upcoming votes in France and Germany.
Leaders flagged defense as a priority, amid concern that was increased by U.S. President Donald Trump’s criticism of EU military spending. “We want a more powerful Europe, which means that we will have to cooperate more closely in our defense,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told reporters after the summit.
Merkel told German broadcaster ARD in an interview that any post-Brexit budget gap in the EU should be filled jointly.
“If we need money for specific projects, we should find it in Europe,” Merkel said. “Rather than announcing a unilateral initiative, I’d look to the full 27 who will cooperate after Britain’s exit.”
Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, whose country was one of the six founding members of the bloc, recalled at the anniversary ceremony that Europe had been “reduced to rubble” after World War II.
“It was a journey of conquest, a journey of hopes that have been fulfilled and of hopes that have yet to be fulfilled,” Gentiloni said. But in recent years, “Europe has been too slow to act on immigration, growth and jobs,” he said. To relaunch the EU, “we must first of all win back the trust of citizens.”
There’s little agreement about how the EU should evolve when the U.K. ceases to be a member in two years’ time. And even Saturday’s declaration nearly ran afoul of the Greek and Polish governments, which criticized the absence of commitments to social protection and European unity.
Both countries said on Friday that they would back the two-page statement, which marks a departure from previous EU strategy by emphasizing the possibility for countries working together at different paces and intensity, rather than by moving forward as one.
Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo called the declaration a “first step toward renewing the unity of the EU,” the AP reported.
“The European Union is facing unprecedented challenges, both global and domestic: regional conflicts, terrorism, growing migratory pressures, protectionism and social and economic inequalities,” the leaders said in their statement. “We will make the European Union stronger and more resilient, through even greater unity.”
On Rome’s Capitol hill, the leaders sought to recapture at least some of the spirit of optimism and dynamism that gave birth to the European Economic Community in 1957. They signed Saturday’s statement with the same pen that was used for signing the treaty 60 years ago.
“There are signatures that last,” Commission President Juncker said to applause.
Around and away from the opulent venue, more than 5,000 police, including anti-terrorism units and snipers, were deployed to enforce a ban on trucks and guard the routes of six separate demonstrations. Authorities feared the gatherings could turn violent with possible infiltration by anarchists and other groups.
— With assistance by Marek Strzelecki, and Marcus Bensasson