EU leaders in show of unity in Rome despite host of troubles
THE European Union's remaining 27 leaders will declare the EU to be "undivided and indivisible" at an anniversary summit today, 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 for a "unity summit" on top of 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.
Looming over the summit will be British Prime Minister 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 the 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".
Mr Juncker conceded 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 east-west 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.
Italian security forces threw a cordon around the city as the first EU leaders arrived last night, with dinghies patrolling the Tiber River and some 5,000 officers deployed on the streets amid reports anarchists might disrupt proceedings.
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, admonishing Brussels for losing touch with ordinary people and calling on EU leaders to make "practical decisions" to improve lives.