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EU leaders converge on Rome to rekindle sense of unity

European Union leaders have begun a weekend pilgrimage in Rome with the hope that a visit to the cradle of their project of unity can rekindle the vigour of youth.

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.

At the Sistine Chapel, EU leaders posed with Pope Francis in front of the Michelangelo fresco The Last Judgment, which depicts the end of the world.

Six decades ago, few would have imagined the end of the EU could even be discussed.

The mantra of the EU, 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," Prime Minister Xavier Bettel of founding nation Luxembourg said in an interview with the Associated Press.

The highlight of Saturday's ceremonies will be the adoption of a Rome Declaration, a blueprint for the way ahead.

But at least two countries continued to have objections to what many would consider a harmless statement to rally all member states.

It is that concern about paralysis that pushed the EU to look for other options.

If Britain does not show up this weekend in Rome, leaders will be looking at France with concern.

With French President Francois Hollande leaving in May, there is the spectre of a possible election victory by Marine Le Pen, the far-right candidate and another anti-EU populist.

Further down the road are the elections in Germany in September, where the far-right Alternative for Germany could become a factor.

Even in the heart of Italy 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 eurozone.

It has been highly critical of most things EU.

Laura Agea, a member of the European parliament, said that what the EU's founders set out to do with the 1957 treaty has been turned upside down.

"It's exactly the opposite. The drift under the eyes of bureaucrats and great financial powers has created a market anything but united," highlighting the north versus south divide created by the financial crisis, Agea said.

This weekend's largely symbolic events will not change that, said Luigi Di Maio of the 5-Star Movement, the vice president of Italy's Chamber of Deputies.

AP

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