By MATTHEW KARNITSCHNIG AND FLORIAN EDER
After a year in which the EU has had to stomach the Brexit vote, bitter fights over refugees and the resurgence of far-right populism, failure was not an option. Yet for a club riven by division over matters large and small, keeping up appearances was no small order.
The setting, a vast palazzo on Capitoline hill that was once the site of a temple ancient Romans believed would stand for eternity, offered an apt reminder of the EU’s own fragility.
But somehow — whether inspired by the weight of the moment, the ghosts of their predecessors or the warm Roman spring — the 27 heads of government and state, pulled it off. For a day, at least, they put their squabbles aside to celebrate the unlikely success of an idea born out of catastrophe.
Gathered in the hall of Horatii and the Curiatii, the opulent marbled chamber where the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957, the continent’s leaders reasserted the EU’s founding principles, while vowing to carry the region’s integration forward.
What looked effortless from afar, was preceded by weeks of pitched debate and recriminations over the content of the declaration. In particular, Poland and Greece objected to key aspects of the aspects of the text, threatening to upend the show of unity.
Both governments were trying to send a signal to their electorates. Poland needed to show it is still listened to by Brussels after losing out in the vote on the re-appointment of Donald Tusk as European Council president. Greece needs to sell another round of economic reforms demanded by Europe to its skeptical public.
When Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras signed, someone from the audience muttered “at last.” After Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło signed, she made a gesture that an aide to one prime minister interpreted as, “You see? I did it”.
“I believe that what we succeeded to do in the past days and hours marks a new awakening,” a visibly relieved Jean-Claude Juncker told reporters afterwards. “Contrary to expectations, it didn’t come to a clash.”
Leaders were kept on a tight leash. Instead of individual national press briefings, the ceremony was followed by a press conference hosted by Juncker, Tusk, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, European Parliament president Antonio Tajani and Maltese Prime minister Joseph Muscat who holds the rotating EU presidency. Though hundreds of journalists were in attendance, they took just a handful of questions.
The ceremony itself lasted little more than an hour, with five set-piece speeches.
The highpoint came during an address by Tusk who who was born in the same year of the Rome Treaty. He recalled his childhood behind the Iron Curtain in the rubble of Gdańsk, a city destroyed during the war.
“Back then, that really was a two-speed Europe,” he said. “And that is why today I have the right to loudly repeat this simple truth: that nothing in our life is granted forever; that to build a free world requires time, great effort and sacrifice…To destroy such a world is very easy. It only takes a short moment. As it happened once, with my Gdańsk.”
The weighty tone for the day’s festivities was set Friday night, when leaders were received in the Vatican by the Pope.
The pontiff urged them to resist the “false forms of security” promoted by populist parties across the Continent.
“Europe finds new hope in solidarity, which is also the most effective antidote to modern forms of populism,” the Pope told them.
He got his message across — Szydło energetically kissed his ring after the speeches.
The big question hanging over the meeting was whether the show of solidarity on display in Rome will last. In the coming months, the EU’s remaining 27 will not only have to find common purpose over Brexit. The biggest challenge they face will be to agree on a broader overhaul of the Union, which for all its success, is in sore need of reform.
To push the project forward, Juncker told his colleagues, will require more confidence.
“We’re not proud enough of what we’ve achieved in Europe,” he said.