ROME (AP) — Posing with Pope 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.
Saturday marks the 60th anniversary of the signature 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 Britain officially triggers negotiations to become the first nation to leave the bloc.
British Prime Minister Theresa May is staying away from this weekend’s ceremonies.
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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 imagined 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 alliances 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.
Poland, which seems poised to take over Britain’s mantle of the most recalcitrant member, wanted more assurances that all its requirements were met and only agreed to the text on Friday, the eve of the summit.
The highlight of Saturday’s ceremonies will be the adoption of a Rome Declaration, a blueprint for the way ahead.
Poland and Greece long had objections to what many would consider a harmless statement to rally all member states but swung around on Friday. It is that concern about paralysis that pushed the EU to look for other options.
With Britain not showing up this weekend in Rome, leaders 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, another anti-EU populist.
Further down the road is Germany’s general election in September, where the far-right Alternative for Germany could become a factor.
Even in the heart of Italy, another founding member, the EU is no longer at peace. The 5-Star Movement founded by comic Beppe Grillo is riding highest in the polls and wants a referendum on whether to stay in the 19-nation eurozone. The movement has been highly critical of most things EU.
Even the pope sensed the unease.
“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.
Associated Press writer Frances D’Emilio and Nicole Winfield contributed from Rome.