Dear Blog Readers—
Yesterday was an historic day for Europe, although it seems to have gone by without much of a blip on the worldwide news radar. I won’t write much about it, but I wanted to share a few behind-the-scenes notes and photos.
The leaders of the 27 nations of the European Union gathered in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which laid the groundwork for the European Union. Back in 1957 only six countries signed the agreement – Italy, France, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and Holland – creating the European common market and allowing for goods, services and people to move across borders in Europe. After two devastating world wars, the European Union brought both peace and prosperity to the continent as it slowly expanded to a total of 28 member states with the addition of Croatia in 2013. In the year 1999 the EU launched its common currency, the Euro, which is now used in 19 nations. There are now 510 million citizens of the European Union.
And that is the good news….
The bad news is that the European Union is facing one of its worst moments. A key member, Britain, has decided to leave the Union. Prime Minister Theresa May is planning to “trigger” the Brexit next Wednesday, formally launching the separation process. The continent has been flagging economically for years with low growth, high unemployment and massive debt – some countries much worse that others (Italy and Greece, for example). The European Union has been riddled with terror attacks in recent years from Paris, to Berlin and last week in London. The leaders of the continent have struggled to come to up with a unified policy to handle the massive influx of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. A tide of populism has given unprecedented power to right-wing, anti-Europe, anti-migrant parties in many European nations. Finally, Europe is being squeezed by an aggressive Vladimir Putin in the East and an unsupportive Donald Trump in the West. So it is not the easiest of moments for Europe.
The 27 leaders came to Rome yesterday to gather in the same place, the elaborate Horatii and Curiatii Hall, a frescoed room in the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill in Rome and sign a new “Rome Declaration” stating their commitment to the European dream.
I was part of the Associated Press team covering that event while we had many more staffers covering four demonstrations in Rome both for and against Europe. Police had anticipated that 25,000 people would be taking part in the protests and had predicted they would become violent. Fortunately, the numbers were far less and they did not become violent. Nevertheless, the city was in virtual lockdown with the center closed down entirely.
Journalists, photographers, camerapersons covering the event had to be at the Bocca della Verita’ at dawn. Although I was not thrilled about getting up in the dark to get in line for three different security checks, it turned out to be one of the best parts of the day. Being able to see the Roman ruins at sunrise with the city completely empty was a real treat.
From the Bocca della Verita’ we dragged our equipment up the back of the Capitoline Hill looking back at the Roman Forum and down to the Coliseum at sunrise. It was spectacular.
Once we passed all the security checks and got our badges, we were taken down into the Piazza del Campidoglio. In my opinion it is one of the most beautiful piazzas in Italy, and Italy has a lot of lovely piazzas. The Piazza del Campidoglio was designed by Michelangelo and constructed between 1546 and 1564. In the middle stands the famous Roman statue of Emperor Marcus Aurelius on his horse (actually a copy, the original is now inside the Capitoline Museums). There are three buildings around the piazza, the Palazzo Senatorio, where Rome’s city hall offices are located, the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the Palazzo Nuovo (both now part of the Capitoline Museums).
The ceremony was taking place in the Palazzo dei Conservatori and the leaders trotted down a red carpet in the piazza to greet Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, EU Council President Donald Tusk and the Prime Minister of Malta, Joseph Muscat, holding the rotating EU Presidency.
There were lots of journalists from Brussels there and those of us from Rome were surprised that they have a habit of yelling questions at the EU leaders in what is technically a photo-opportunity. It also took the Italian protocol people by surprise. They tried to hush up a very vocal Austrian journalist telling her to “Sta Zitta!!” which only encouraged her. Many of the leaders actually left the red carpet and came over to speak to the journalists standing behind the retractable ribbon barriers. It took me a second to get up to speed and grab our boom microphone so we could get some comments from the leaders as well. I was pleased though to get a Jean-Claude Juncker, the President of the EU Commission who told me, “I do think that the Brexit, the exit of Britain, is a tragedy.” That mini soundbite was at the top of the AP story all day and I had BBC and SKY UK asking me for it.”
I found more interesting though the comments of the Lithuanian President, Dalia Grybauskaite, who was so positive about the future of the EU when she came over to speak to us.
Here is what she had to say,” “The past 60 years were difficult, we have challenges, but I can say that Europe always faced challenges but it is everlasting and will be everlasting. Yes there are countries coming in and coming out and there will probably continue to be, but this union is based on goodwill. Nobody forces anybody in, and everybody is free to choose. I think we will be better together because we can be faster and more efficient together but we will see. Life is giving new challenges but we will find new tools.”
Inside the leaders sat in the Horatii and Curiatii Hall surrounded by frescoes depicting the history of ancient Rome with two solemn statues of former Popes looking down on them. After some speeches the leaders each signed the “Rome Declaration”
The declaration lists some of the main problems facing Europe: “regional conflicts, terrorism, growing migratory pressures, protectionism and social and economic inequalities.” It then lays out some strategies for solving the problems but specifies a new multi-speed approach noting, “We will act together, at different paces and intensity where necessary, while moving in the same direction…”
The document states, “Unity is both a necessity and our free choice. Taken individually, we would be sidelined by global dynamics. Standing together is our best chance to include them and to defend our common interests and values.
And the last line of the document…
“We have united for the better. Europe is our common future.”
After signing the document the leaders poured out of the doors of the Palazzo dei Conservatori and many stopped to chat with journalists outside giving their spin on the day. A crowd huddled around Angela Merkel who declared, “The Europe of different speeds does not in any way mean that it is not a common Europe. We are saying here very clearly that we want to go in a common direction.”
I will let Angela Merkel have the last word.
Putting my selfie stick to work:
A gigantic thank you to my AP photographer colleague Alessandra Tarantino for giving me some of her extra photos not used by the AP for my blog. Grazie Alessandra!!!!!