With cracks widen­ing, EU tries to re­pair unity

Bloc, with Bri­tain ab­sent, marks 60th at un­easy sum­mit.

Austin American-Statesman - - FRONT PAGE - By Raf Casert

The bloc, with the depart­ing U.K. no­tably ab­sent, gath­ers in Rome to cel­e­brate its 60th an­niver­sary and chart a new path for­ward.

Pos­ing with Pope ROME — Fran­cis be­fore Michelan­gelo’s mas­ter­piece “The Last Judg­ment” at the Vat­i­can, Euro­pean Union lead­ers started their week­end pil­grim­age in Rome hop­ing that a visit to the cra­dle of their unity pro­ject could some­how rekin­dle the vigor of the bloc’s youth.

More and more, it looks like the EU’s fu­ture will have less una­nim­ity and more ar­eas where groups of EU na­tions ad­vance on their own when faced with re­sis­tance from oth­ers on spe­cific is­sues, Prime Min­is­ter Xavier Bet­tel of found­ing EU na­tion Lux­em­bourg told The As­so­ci­ated Press.

To­day marks the 60th an­niver­sary of the signa- ture of their solemn bond in Rome, which started with six found­ing na­tions but steadily grew to 28. But the big­gest set­back in the EU’s his­tory looms next week, when Brit- ain of­fi­cially trig­gers nego- tia­tions to be­come the first na­tion to leave the bloc.

Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter Theresa May is stay­ing away from this week­end’s cer­e­monies.

Fran­cis said the EU was called “to care for the ail­ments that inevitably come with age, and to find new ways to steer its course. Yet un­like hu­man be­ings, the Euro­pean Union does not face an in­evitable old age, but the pos­si­bil­ity of a new youth­ful­ness.”

At the Sis­tine Chapel, EU lead­ers posed with Fran­cis in front of the Michelan­gelo fresco, which de­picts the end of the world. Six decades ago, few would have imag- ined the end of the EU could even be dis­cussed.

Long the mantra of the EU, the “ever closer union” pointed to­ward a seam­less con­ti­nent and an eco­nomic and po­lit­i­cal jug­ger­naut. Now oth­ers, be­yond Bri­tain with its di­vorce plans, are look­ing for more of a “liv­ing apart to­gether” re­la­tion­ship.

The EU’s Rome sum­mit, while vow­ing unity, could in­stead be a wa­ter­shed mo­ment in mov­ing away from it and to­ward a more prac­ti­cal road of par­tial alli- an­ces on cer­tain is­sues.

“I’d rather have a two- speed Europe than a dead- end and no speed,” Bet­tel said. “When a coun­try says ‘I don’t want to,’ I can say ‘Well, too bad. Don’t block me. Let me get on with it with oth­ers.’”

The bloc has proven in the past to be less than uni­fied in de­ci­sion-mak­ing on is­sues such as the sin­gle euro cur­rency or the Schen­gen zone of un­fet­tered travel, but it al­ways left a taste of be­ing less than ideal. Some call the fu­ture a two-speed Europe, or a Europe of con­cen­tric cir­cles, but still it would al­low na­tions to move ahead or closer who want to, no longer be­ing held back by oth­ers.

Bet­tel said the two-speed idea, first pushed by Lux­em­bourg, Bel­gium and the Nether­lands, is catch­ing on.

“We were alone at the be­gin­ning with the Benelux. Then we had coun­try af­ter coun­try, be­cause we saw that cer­tain ones tried to take us hostage,” he said, re­fer­ring to the Pol­ish gov­ern­ment, which sought to sab­o­tage the last sum­mit two weeks ago by re­fus­ing to ap­prove con­clu­sions be­cause the 27 other EU na­tions ap­pointed Don­ald Tusk, a lo­cal po­lit­i­cal ri­val, for an­other term as EU pres­i­dent.

Bet­tel said it would be un­work­able in the fu­ture.

“Can you imag­ine, 27 or 28 around a ta­ble and each, for an ap­point­ment, or be­cause he dis­agrees with a sen­tence, re­fuses and blocks Europe and 500 mil­lion ci­ti­zens? If they are un­happy, they should tell us,” Bet­tel said..

The high­light of to­day’s cer­e­monies will be the adop­tion of a Rome Dec­la­ra­tion, a blue­print for the way ahead. With Bri­tain not show­ing up this week­end in Rome, lead- ers will be look­ing at France, a ma­jor EU power, with con­cern. Since French Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Hol­lande is leav­ing in May, there’s the specter of a pos­si­ble pres­i­den­tial elec­tion vic­tory by far-right leader Ma­rine Le Pen.

Fur­ther down the road is Ger­many’s gen­eral elec­tion in Septem­ber, where the far- right Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many could be­come a fac­tor.

L’OSSERVATORE RO­MANO / AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Pope Fran­cis poses in the Sis­tine Chapel on Fri­day with heads of state and in­sti­tu­tions in the Euro­pean Union af­ter an au­di­ence at the Vat­i­can. The EU is hold­ing a sum­mit this week­end to mark the bloc’s 60th an­niver­sary.

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