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Tuesday 23 January 2018

Lacklustre statement of unity at low-key summit

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Photo: Getty
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Photo: Getty

Sarah Collins

The EU's soul-searching exercise on its future direction promises nothing revolutionary. Afraid of rocking the boat ahead of elections in France and Germany, and with Brexit talks looming, EU leaders kept things low-key for the 60th anniversary of the bloc's founding treaty.

They made the right noises in favour of unity, signing a two-page pledge to stay "undivided and indivisible", though allowing each other to move "at different paces and intensity where necessary".

But it's a rather lacklustre statement that simply rehashes previous commitments on border controls, growth and jobs, social progress and security and defence.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker described the text as a "new awakening", and Taoiseach Enda Kenny high-fived the EU's top officials after putting his name to it.

But Polish premier Beata Szydlo appeared to hesitate before signing, fresh from her failure earlier this month to thwart the re-election of Poland's Donald Tusk as European Council chief.

A voice in the audience exclaimed, "Finally!" when Greek premier Alexis Tsipras put his name to the paper, following his threat to withdraw his support over what he sees as his country's unfair bailout terms.

And there was laughter in the room when Hungarian prime minister, and EU problem child, Viktor Orbán, took his time to appear on stage to sign the accord. The events paint a picture of an EU that is not quite sure what it is that is keeping it together.

One unifying force is the UK's decision to leave after 43 years. British Prime Minster Theresa May was not invited, with French President François Hollande saying that it was the UK's choice.

"She chose not to be here. I mean to say, it's her, it's the British people who chose this.

"They are no longer on this adventure with us, they have chosen another path," he told reporters after the three-hour ceremony on Saturday.

Peace proved a more positive clarion call, with Mr Juncker recalling how the European Economic Community created in 1957 "rose from the ashes of two world wars" and was shaped by "the iron will of those who had returned from battlefields and concentration camps".

But alternative rallies in the Italian capital paint a divergent picture of where the EU is at 60 years on. A sea of azure washed over Rome as EU federalists, draped in the bloc's blue and yellow-starred flags, marched in favour of a United States of Europe.

But one attendee, who did not want to be named, did not take heart from the public showing.

"In a city of five million, only 15,000 people bothered to march, either for or against the EU," he said.

On the other side of town, an alternative demonstration of self-styled "Euro realists" pointed the finger at the EU for failing to tackle inequalities within its own borders.

"We will not give up on Europe, but it is becoming very difficult for us to defend it right now," said Laura Sullivan, Europe director for anti-poverty campaigners ActionAid and vice-president of Concord, a coalition of development NGOs.

Even the Pope hit out at a culture of "fearfulness" that he says has led the EU to turn its back on refugees fleeing war or poverty.

Irish Independent

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