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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

As EU Turns 50, Leaders Are Unsure What's Next

BRUSSELS -- As a law student in Lisbon in the late 1960s, Jose Manuel Barroso passed around an illicit copy of "Je t'aime, Moi non plus" a heavy-breathing French tune of a lovemaking couple that Portugal's fascist dictator had banned as too racy.

"I could not buy the books I wanted. Or listen to the music I liked," said Barroso -- now the European Union's top executive. "My generation saw Europe as ... a destination for those who wanted freedom and democracy."

In 50 years of the EU, former dictatorships like the one Barroso experienced in Portugal, and more recently former Communist lands such as Romania and Bulgaria, have joined the fold. And peace has been cemented across the region to such a degree that the very threat of war has largely been forgotten.

Yet as Europeans prepare to mark the half-century birthday with pomp and proclamations this month in Berlin, many people across the region are looking ahead with fear.

They feel angst about globalization, appear unable to implement reforms needed to regain its competitive edge, struggle to integrate millions of mostly Muslim immigrants, and grope for direction as the EU's grand dreams of adopting a constitution that would formalize and deepen the union lie in tatters.

There have been momentous accomplishments: a single currency, elimination of internal borders, expansion into an economic giant that includes 490 million people in 27 countries -- 11 of them formerly fascist or communist dictatorships.

And many Europeans are proud of their social safety net, their long vacations, their short workweeks and their high wages.

Yet it is some of these very achievements, and some of its members' inflexible labor markets and highly regulated economies, that are threatening to hold it back. Increasingly, both the United States and Asia seem better placed to compete.

Perhaps the EU's chief goal, albeit one that was often unspoken, was making Europe safe from war -- but that succeeded so spectacularly that most people now take peace for granted.

"Sixty years of peace," Barroso said, "means the image of Europe as a bastion against war is losing its resonance."

At their two-day summit starting on March 24 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which started Europe's common market, EU leaders are to issue a declaration that they hope will reignite enthusiasm for the European project -- notably by reviving prospects for a constitution.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the summit's host, faces a formidable task persuading fellow leaders that the charter -- which would streamline decision making and raise the EU's international profile by giving it a president and foreign minister -- was not killed off when the French and Dutch rejected it in referendums in 2005.