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EU leaders seek unity in Rome, despite Brexit and protests

EU leaders seek unity in Rome, despite Brexit and protests
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Leaders of the European Union met in Rome on Saturday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bloc-'s founding treaty and demonstrate that the EU can...

ROME: Leaders of the European Union met in Rome on Saturday to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the bloc's founding treaty and demonstrate that the EU can survive the impending departure of major power Britain.

Under heavy security as the Italian capital braced for anti-EU protests and the risk of attacks such as that by an Islamic State follower in London last week, the 27 national leaders gathered in the Campidoglio palace where the six founding states signed the Treaty of Rome on March 25, 1957.

Conspicuous by her absence was British Prime Minister Theresa May, who will write to EU summit chairman Donald Tusk on Wednesday formally to announce that its second-biggest economy will leave the Union in negotiations over the coming two years.

Britain shunned the new European community at its creation, but finally joined in 1973. Its people voted to quit last June.

Tusk, a former Polish premier, recalled his own life in war-ravaged Gdansk, shut in behind the Iron Curtain, to remind the leaders of the Union's achievements and urge them not to let it descend into petty squabbling and bureaucracy.

"Why should we lose our trust in the purpose of unity today? Is it only because it has become our reality? Or because we have become bored or tired of it?" he asked, taking a dig at his own nationalist-minded domestic rivals, now ruling in Warsaw.

"Europe as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all ... The unity of Europe is not a bureaucratic model. It is a set of common values and democratic standards."

BREXIT BLOW

Without the so-called Brexit, it might have been a modestly hopeful summit in the palazzo where old foes France and Germany, with Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg, signed the original treaty; all 28 EU economies are growing after a slump that has blighted the past decade and recent border chaos has largely abated as refugees are, for now, being held in check.

But Brexit has undermined the self-confidence of a Union that has helped bring peace and growing prosperity to the continent, and has encouraged eurosceptic nationalists challenging governments from Stockholm to Sicily.

It has also amplified the petty frictions among the more than two dozen national governments and obliged leaders' aides to water down a grand birthday declaration of unity.

After days of carping from Poland and Greece, seeking to show home voters they were getting Brussels to give assurances about equal treatment and social welfare, the Rome Declaration the 27 will sign just before noon (1100 GMT) offers ringing phrases about peace and unity.

"We have united for the better," the text concludes. "Europe is our common future."

But it may disappoint those who think more ambition and coordination is the answer to the malaise.

The declaration promises to listen to citizens. But locked away behind rings of armed police, the leaders may hear little of what thousands of protesters have to say on Saturday.

For Ernesto Rapani, an official of Italy's right-wing eurosceptic Fratelli d'Italia party attending a demonstration in Rome, the bloc's trade and financial rules were skewed in favour of Germany and had to change: "At the moment the union is convenient for Germany and not Italy," he said.

At the Vatican on Friday, Pope Francis told EU leaders that their Union had achieved much in 60 years but that Europe faced a "vacuum of values". He condemned anti-immigrant populism and extremism that he said posed a mortal threat to the bloc.

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