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March 25, 2017

ROME (AP) — With Britain already heading out the door, the 27 remaining European Union nations on Saturday sought to keep the bloc moving forward by enshrining a pledge to give member nations more freedom to form partial alliances and set policy when unanimity is out of reach.

They marked the 60th anniversary of their founding treaty as a turning point in their history in the knowledge that British Prime Minister Theresa May will officially trigger divorce proceedings from the bloc next week, a fact that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker called “a tragedy.”

Desperately trying to portray that sustained unity is the only way ahead in a globalized world, being able to walk away from a summit without acrimony was already a sort of victory. “We didn’t have a major clash or conflict, contrary to what many thought,” Juncker said.

EU Council President Donald Tusk said that sustained unity was the only way for the EU to survive. “Europe as a political entity will either be united, or will not be at all,” he told EU leaders at a solemn session in precisely the same ornate hall on the ancient Capitoline Hill where the Treaty of Rome founding the EU was signed on March 25, 1957.

To move ahead though, the leaders recognized that full unity on all things will be unworkable. “We will act together, at different paces and intensity where necessary, while moving in the same direction,” said the Rome Declaration signed by the 27 nations.

The EU has often done that in practice in the past, with only 19 nations in the eurozone and not all members participating in the Schengen zone of borderless travel. It has already extended to social legislation and even divorce rules among EU nationals.

So German Chancellor Angela Merkel sought to assuage fears that it would lead to a further unraveling of unity. “The Europe of different speeds does not in any way mean that it is not a common Europe,” Merkel said after the ceremonies. “We are saying here very clearly that we want to go in a common direction. And there are things that are not negotiable,” highlighting the EU freedom of movement, goods, people and services.

In a series of speeches, EU leaders also acknowledged how the bloc had strayed into a complicated structure that had slowly lost touch with its citizens, compounded by the severe financial crisis that struck several member nations over the past decade.

Italian Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni, who was hosting the summit, said that over the past dozen years the EU’s development had stalled. “Unfortunately, we stopped” he said, and “it triggered a crisis of rejection.”

At the same time though, the summit in sun-splashed springtime Rome, where new civilizations were built on old ruins time and again, there also was a message of optimism. “Yes, we have problems, yes there are difficulties, yes there will be crisis in the future, but we stand together and we move forward,” Gentiloni said. “We have the strength to start out again.”

At the end of the session, all 27 leaders signed the Rome Declaration saying that “European unity is a bold, farsighted endeavor.” “We have united for the better. Europe is our common future,” the declaration said.

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