The leaders of 25 European nations signed the continent’s first constitution at a lavish ceremony Friday, putting aside deep differences to approve a blueprint for enhancing the region’s political and economic muscle.
Under 16th century frescoes in a palazzo designed by Michelangelo on Rome’s Capitoline Hill, the leaders said they were ushering in a new chapter in European history. They gathered in the same meeting hall where representatives of six countries had come together 47 years ago to create the forerunner to the European Union.
“We have seen former dictatorships turn into democracies and witnessed the reunification of Europe,” Dutch Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende, whose country holds the EU presidency, told the dignitaries as the ceremony was broadcast live across the continent.
The signing represented a milestone in Europe’s quest to establish itself as a unified bloc. However, the constitutional process can still be derailed, as the document has to be ratified by every country for it to become the law of the land. At least 10 nations plan to hold referendums, and the results are unpredictable.
The EU, which expanded from 15 to 25 members in May with the admission of Eastern European countries, has a population of 450 million, surpassed only by China and India. Its multitrillion-dollar economy rivals that of the United States.
Yet the drafting of the constitution was a struggle between states’ competing desires to preserve national identities and sovereignty and to form a united front by ceding some independence.
Critics complained that the 50-article document was watered down to appease the diverse EU members, resulting in a toothless manifesto that makes it too easy for countries to wiggle out of policies they don’t like.
Proponents said the constitution streamlined the EU’s unwieldy institutions. It creates the post of EU foreign minister, who will set policy on terrorism issues, among others. It also establishes a longer-term EU presidency to replace the current system, in which a different country has assumed the leadership every six months.
The constitution also enshrines the EU flag -- 12 gold stars on a field of pale blue -- and selects Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” as the continental anthem.
Even amid Friday’s fanfare, the ceremony was overshadowed by the kind of dispute that reflects the difficulty in finding consensus among Europe’s societies.
Jose Manuel Durrao Barroso of Portugal, the next European commissioner, this week had to postpone naming his executive committee after numerous European politicians complained about the nominee for the post that handles justice and human rights issues.
The nominee, Rocco Buttiglione, a conservative member of the Italian government, came under fire for comments against gays and unmarried mothers.
Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi was quoted Friday as saying he would not back down on the nomination. The Vatican also weighed in, with several top prelates saying Buttiglione was the victim of an anti-Catholic campaign. But pressure was mounting to replace the nominee if Barroso was to gain approval for his committee.
The constitution includes a broad bill of rights, urges citizens to “transcend their ancient divisions,” and says the region’s identity “draws inspiration from the cultural, religious and humanist inheritance of Europe.” However, officials who drafted the document during 28 months of debate rebuffed entreaties from Pope John Paul II and conservative Catholics to specifically acknowledge the continent’s Christian roots.
“Many citizens of this continent -- Catholics, Orthodox and Evangelicals -- wanted a mention of Europe’s Christian roots in the preamble to the constitutional treaty,” Msgr. Giovanni Lajolo, a top Vatican official, told the daily newspaper La Stampa on Friday. “Apart from the anti-Christian prejudice -- which is not surprising -- it is the cultural shortsightedness that is astounding.”
The signing took place under extraordinary security. Rome’s historic center looked like a ghost town Friday morning, with traffic blocked for miles around Capitoline Hill. A 7,000-member security force was deployed through the city and F-16 fighter jets enforced a “no-fly” zone above.
For all the pomp and circumstance, however, those Romans aware of what was happening were less than enthusiastic. Italy and other countries have seen prices rise since joining the EU and adopting the common currency, the euro.
“I only know that since the introduction of the euro we can’t make it until the end of the month, and that I can’t buy a nice T-shirt for my children anymore. So whatever they are doing up there [on Capitoline Hill], won’t make my day any better,” said Nadia Torre, a middle-aged woman trying to get to work.
Benito Scarpetta, a pensioner, was also skeptical.
“I am afraid they are going to cancel our Italian tradition, or the British tradition,” he said. “I don’t think they should make all the countries uniform, otherwise we lose our culture.”