EU marks 60th birthday in Rome under the shadow of Brexit

60 rome

European Union leaders gather in Rome this week to proclaim their “common future” on the bloc’s 60th birthday, despite a wave of crises including Britain’s looming exit from the bloc.

The 27 leaders will use Saturday’s anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome on March 25, 1957, to hail the peace and prosperity they say the project has brought Europe in the aftermath of World War II.

But the ghost at the banquet will be British Prime Minister Theresa May, who instead of joining the party in the splendour of a 16th-century palazzo will be in London preparing to trigger the Brexit divorce just four days later.

From migration and terrorism to populism and the eurozone debt crisis, Brexit is one of a host of existential challenges clouding the birthday celebrations of a union formed to rebuild Europe from the ashes of war.

Perhaps seeking divine inspiration to help with their troubles, the EU leaders will have a special audience with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Friday afternoon.

On Saturday they will gather for a ceremonial meeting in the Hall of the Horatii and Curiatii, in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Square, the same place where the Treaty of Rome was originally signed.

‘Challenges for the union’

But in a sign of the underlying tensions in today’s union, there are still last-minute rows over how far the declaration will go in suggesting that EU states can have “different paces and intensity” of cooperation.

EU President Donald Tusk said in his summit invitation letter that Rome would be an “opportunity to celebrate our history together and take stock of sixty years of integration.”

He warned of the challenges ahead in a changing geopolitical situation, including an uncertain ally in US President Donald Trump, an aggressive Russia and increasing protectionism.

Crucial elections this year in France — where far-right leader Marine Le Pen has been showing strongly in polls — and Germany are adding to the general sense that Europe is at a turning point.

“It is no secret that the historical moment we are facing requires deeper and more solid reflection on the challenges for the union,” Tusk, a former Polish premier, said.

Sixty years ago it was just six countries — Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, The Netherlands and West Germany — that joined to form the European Economic Community.

Now called the European Union, it has since expanded to become a political and economic bloc that covers 28 countries with 508 million people, together representing the world’s largest economy.