The Daily Telegraph
Pope warns EU is ‘dying’ on eve of its unity summit
Pontiff criticises elite for ‘split’ with the people, as Brexit is the elephant in the room at conference
POPE FRANCIS has warned that the European Union “risks dying” and the continent faces a “vacuum of values”, as leaders gathered for a 60th anniversary summit today
The Pope condemned anti-immigrant populism and extremism that he said posed a mortal threat to the bloc.
“When a body loses its sense of direction and is no longer able to look ahead, it experiences a regression and, in the long run, risks dying,” he warned.
He also admonished Europe’s elites for failing to tackle the concerns of common people facing austerity and uncertainty. “Sadly, one frequently has the sense that there is a growing ‘split’ between the citizenry and the European institutions,” he said.
The EU’s remaining 27 leaders will declare the EU to be “undivided and indivisible” at the anniversary summit, despite the looming reality of Brexit and weeks of bitter disagreement over the text of the Rome Declaration setting out the future of the troubled bloc.
The EU leaders will put on a brave face when they gather on Rome’s Capitoline Hill and renew the EU’s marriage vows in a ceremony to mark 60 years since the signing of its founding document, the 1957 Treaty of Rome.
Several EU leaders arrived early for an audience with Pope Francis in the Vatican, but the Pontiff pulled no punches in addressing the bloc’s problems.
Looming over the summit will be Theresa May’s decision to trigger Article 50 next week and begin formal talks to secede from the union – a reality reflected in the fact that she will be absent from today’s line-up of leaders.
Preparations for celebration have been marred by deep divisions among EU members, with Poland and Greece both threatening to refuse to sign a formal declaration unless given concessions on issues including immigration and austerity.
Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, tried to brush off suggestions that Britain’s absence would be “the elephant in the room” – joking to a BBC interviewer that Mrs May was “not an elephant”.
However, Mr Juncker conceded that Europe’s increasingly fractious membership were struggling to agree on how to handle migration, deal with multiculturalism and put the single currency on a sustainable track.
“We are not in the best form and shape we could be in,” he admitted.
The divisions in Europe – split eastwest over values and immigration and north-south over austerity and the euro – were highlighted by the tortuous drafting process of the two-page Rome Declaration, which was watered down in successive versions to accommodate members’ objections. Poland responded angrily to suggestions from Angela Merkel and Mr Juncker that Europe might accelerate moves to becoming a “multi-speed union” – a move which Warsaw feared would mean richer, core EU states leaving newer membe members like Poland marginalised and out of pocket. In the end, the draftdr agreed only that the EU would proceedp at “different paces” whilewhi “moving in the same direction direction”. Having threatenedthreaten to embarrass Europe by refusingre to sign the document – at threat the Poles carried out at the last European Co Council summit when t they refused to sign offo the summit findin findings – the Polish leade leadership signal nalled yesterday af afternoon that t they would agree to the document. Andrzej Duda, the Polish president, below left, said that Poland did not wish to leave Europe, but did want to be treated with respect. “We want a union of free and equal nation states,” he said.
Another issue came with Greece threatening not to sign off the text in a row over German and IMF demands for further pension cuts in order to receive the next tranche of Greece’s €86 billion bailout.
The draft text proclaimed in its opening paragraph that the European Union was a major economic power with “unparalleled levels of social protection and welfare” – a pledge that Alexis Tsipras, the Greek prime minister, said Europe was increasingly failing to live up to.
Greece has cut pensions 12 times since it signed up to its first bailout in 2010, and Mr Tsipras – who also eventually agreed to the text – wrote to Mr Juncker asking him to confirm whether the social commitments were valid for “all member states without exception, or for all except Greece?”
“This isn’t our Europe,” Mr Tsipras added bitterly on arriving in Rome. “We want to change this Europe, to say no to the Europe of fear, of unemployment, of poverty, and say yes to the Europe that takes care of social needs.”
Regional analysts said the disputes over the Rome Declaration reflected the twin crises facing the European Union – the ongoing failure to resolve the structural flaws in the euro and the failure to tackle immigration and border security issues.
“Europe needs to find a new, multitier way to move forward that allows groups with similar interests to integrate without alienating the rest,” said Charles Grant, the director of the Centre for European Reform, a pro-EU thinktank. “The EU will survive Brexit, but the Rome summit will only be useful if it highlights the problems facing the union. The danger is that it could all feel too self-congratulatory.”
Pope Francis was more gloomy. “Sadly, one frequently has the sense that there is a growing ‘split’ between the citizenry and the European institutions, which are often perceived as distant and inattentive to the different sensibilities present in the Union,” he said. “Today the European Union needs to recover the sense of being primarily a ‘community’ of persons and peoples.”
Despite the tensions and the need to ensure cohesion in the EU after Brexit, Mr Juncker said that the EU was not “hostile” to Britain.
“We are not in a hostile mood when it comes to Brexit because I do think, and I do want, and I do wish to have with Britain in the next decades a friendly relationship … we’ll negotiate in a friendly way, in a fair way and we are not naive,” he said.
‘Let’s suppose for one second that others would leave. Two, three, four, five: that would be the end’