Sixty years ago this month, six leaders signed a treaty that changed Europe. Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany approved the Treaty of Rome beneath the tapestries of the Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitoline Hill. A printing delay meant that leaders did not sign the treaty text itself, but rather a document consisting only of a frontispiece and blank pages.

When the European Union’s heads of government meet in Rome later this month they will also be facing something of a blank page. They know that the EU, as it is currently configured, cannot meet the 21st century’s challenges. But they are not sure how to reshape it so that it can. The summit is critical: in April the French will begin voting in a presidential election that could potentially unravel the union.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker has presented member states with five possible paths following Britain’s departure from the 28-member bloc that represents some 500 million people. The options range from a “multi-speed” EU to a European superstate. Leaders must decide which option to pursue at their meeting on March 25, 60 years to the day after the Rome treaty laid the EU’s foundations. The day before, they will meet Pope Francis. Some are hoping for a motivational speech. Others want Francis to give the EU a concerted push down one of the five paths.

There is a certain irony in European leaders turning to the Pope for help 14 years after they ignored St John Paul II’s request to acknowledge the continent’s Christian roots in the EU constitution. Back then secular liberalism was in the ascendant. The eurozone crisis, Brexit, the rise of nationalist parties and the election of a Eurosceptic US president have shaken that once formidable faith.

Following Barack Obama’s departure, Pope Francis is arguably the EU’s most influential external supporter. But if leaders heading to Rome this month expect nothing but affirmation, they might be in for a shock. For the Pope has shown that he is no mere cheerleader for integration; he is, rather, a stern doctor who offers a blunt diagnosis of the EU’s ills and proposes a gruelling treatment plan.

To the consternation of some feminists, Francis has repeatedly compared Europe to a grandmother, “no longer fertile and vibrant”. He wants the continent to become “Mother Europe” once again: a creative, nurturing culture that welcomes and integrates those fleeing war. He implies that the EU itself is partly to blame for today’s nationalist insurgencies, because it has replaced “great ideas” with “bureaucratic technicalities”. In his view, the present crisis requires nothing less than “the re-foundation of the European Union”.

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