EU nations renew fragile pact amid threats from nationalism, Brexit

Today 27 nations renewed their pledge to the European Union amid concerns over Brexit, nationalism and the threat of terrorism.

Protesters say EU is worth saving, but they want big changes, while a significant minority wants out

European Council President Donald Tusk, left, and European Parliament President Antonio Tajani hold up a document signed in Rome by EU leaders during their meeting on the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. (Remo Casilli/Reuters)

Today, atop Rome's exquisite Capitoline Hill, it was a solemn scene inside the Palazzo dei Conservatori where leaders from 27 European Union nations renewed their pledge to the now precarious pan-European project begun 60 years ago in the same spot.

Putting last-minute wrangling over wording aside, all 27 signed the Rome Declaration, a proclamation of commitment to "a unique union with common institutions and strong values, a community of peace, freedom, democracy, human rights and the rule of law."

The language was vague enough to hide the most urgent issues the leaders now must tackle to preserve the EU, everything from terror attacks and unwillingness by some states to take in migrants, to the growing economic gap between debtor and creditor countries.

The largest Unite for Europe march on Saturday was held in London, but pro-EU demonstrators also gathered in Rome. (Megan Williams/CBC)

After signing the Rome Declaration, Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni declared that the EU "is starting again [with] a vision for the next 10 years."

It was 60 years since the Treaty of Rome, which led to establishment of the European Economic Community and eventually the EU.

But the fragility of the pact was not only marked by the absence of British Prime Minister Teresa May, just days away from launching the process that will sever decades-old ties between Britain and the EU, but also in protests in the streets below.

Protests in the streets

Beyond the police barricades cordoning off the ancient city core to traffic, thousands marched in six different rallies. Some, such as the far-right group nationalist Forza Nuova waved blue EU banners with F--K emblazoned across them.

Along with calls to expel the hundreds of thousands of newly arrived migrants and anger with deals they say have saved banks and brought in austerity measures, their central gripe is with what they see as the EU threat to national sovereignty.

Protesters take part in an anti-EU demonstration as European Union leaders meet on the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, in Rome, Italy, today. (Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters)

It's a view shared by Giorgia Meloni, head of the Fratelli d'Italia movement, who said the EU should be replaced with a new alliance of "free and sovereign countries." 

But the message from most of the protesters here in Rome is this: The EU is worth saving, but it has to better respond to Europeans' needs and desires.

"It's a question of faith and will," says Pascal Rozier, a French woman who with her Scottish husband travelled from Brussels to Rome today to show support for the EU. "We want a generous Europe and not one that functions like the sum of different states."

Italy's persistent unemployment

Most of the people out today were young Italians, 87 per cent of whom, a recent poll by Italian pollster Doxa showed, want to stay in the EU.

"We have to do better with Europe," says medical student Claudia Zorzi, 28, from the northern Italian city of Verona. "We need a common defence, a proper environmental and a social policy, and a vision that gives a future to young people,"

In Italy, young people face an unemployment rate of more than 40 per cent.

"We don't want to return to World War I or II, but we know that mere cooperation doesn't work. We need a federation."

Others in Italy, such as Senator Michela Montevecchi of Five Star anti-establishment movement – now leading in the polls with more than 30 per cent support among Italians — are less invested in whether the European Union survives.

When asked if she would be open to getting rid of the EU, she said, "Yes, why not."

CETA negotiated 'in the dark'

Montevecchi, an Italian-language tutor before joining the Five Stars, complains the EU is not a gathering of people, but a bureaucratic structure whose main concerns reflect the interests of banks, lobbyists and multi-national companies.

She cites the recent Canadian-EU CETA trade deal, which she says was negotiated "in the dark," as an example of the EU turning deaf ears to the very citizens whose interests it's supposed to protect.

A man protests against Brexit during a pro-Europe demonstration in Rome. The Italian capital hosted a special summit of European leaders on Saturday to mark the 60th anniversary of the bloc's founding treaty. (Vincenzo Pinto/AFP/Getty Images)

Montevecchi is part of a demographic that frustrates young pro-Europeans such as Simone Fissolo, head of Gioventù Federalista Europea – the Italian chapter of Young European Federalists.

"There are a lot of young people and a lot of old people," he says of those fighting for the survival and improvement of the EU. "But we lack the people in the middle, the [generation] now enjoying the fruits of the EU. These are people who don't realize they are living it without supporting it."

Fissolo says he understands the nationalist impulse to put up borders when there have been terror attacks across Europe, but he also sees the desire for more security as an opportunity for the EU.

"Many people don't understand that the threat of terrorism is not linked to immigration flows, but they think security is needed. So I think the next step is common defence," says Fissolo, a message he says he's marching for today and one that he believes Europeans are ready to accept.

He is one of thousands who say if Europe doesn't go forward toward full integration, it will go back – at the risk of bringing an end to 60 years of peace.


Megan Williams

Rome correspondent

Rome correspondent Megan Williams has covered everything from Italian politics and migration to the Vatican and the Venice Biennale for almost two decades. Her award-winning documentaries can be heard on Ideas, The Current and other CBC shows. Megan is a regular guest host of As It Happens and The Current.