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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

European Union Grapples With Its Identity at 50

APMerkel and her husband Joachim Sauer, right, welcoming Chirac during the EU festivities in Berlin on Saturday.
BERLIN -- European Union leaders celebrated half a century of unity Sunday by hailing the bloc's achievements in bolstering peace, democracy and prosperity, then pledged to end two years of deadlock over plans to overhaul the way the EU does business.

"Stagnation means regression," German Chancellor Angela Merkel warned her fellow leaders, urging them to get going on discussing a new EU treaty. "We must always renew the political shape of Europe in keeping with the times."

Merkel appealed for support for a German "road map" that calls on the EU to adopt a new treaty by 2009. That agreement would replace the draft constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters in referendums in 2005, plunging the EU into a major crisis.

Manu Fernandez / AP
Barcelona's Agbar Tower illuminated.
EU leaders are divided, however, over how much of the old constitution should be retained, and those disagreements were evident even amid celebrations of the EU's 50th birthday.

Germany and Italy want to preserve much of the substance of the original text -- Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi told the summit that it was "a very solid basis" on which to build.

The Dutch government this week insisted, however, that a new treaty "must, in content, scope and name, convincingly differ" from the constitution. The Poles, Czechs and British are even more wary about any changes that shift power from national capitals to the EU.

Finding a solution will not be easy. Prodi said the birthday celebrations ended "a period of mourning" over the failed constitution, but acknowledged that the EU needed to "rediscover something of its creative madness" to find a way forward.

Substantive talks on the constitution are unlikely to get under way until after the French presidential election in April, which will see the departure of Jacques Chirac, who was attending his last EU summit in Berlin after almost 12 years in office.

Reflecting the divisions, the Berlin Declaration -- marking 50 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome that led to the creation of the EU -- did not include the word "constitution."

Franka Bruns / AP
A woman having cake at the "EU-Panorama" exhibit in Berlin on Saturday.

Instead, the 27 presidents and prime ministers gave a commitment only to place the EU on a "renewed common basis" by the time the bloc's 490 million citizens elect a new European Parliament in mid-2009.

Agreement on even that vague wording needed some last-minute diplomatic arm-twisting from Merkel -- whose government holds the EU's rotating presidency. Czech President Vaclav Klaus -- a frequent critic of the EU -- was angered by the whole process, accusing the Germans of failing to hold "a democratic discussion" with their partners.

Despite the criticism, EU leaders are aware of the need to overhaul the union, which has grown from six original members in 1957 to 27 now, expanding its original role of promoting economic cooperation into an integrated bloc with a shared currency, common borders and cooperation on areas ranging from the environment and immigration to defense and foreign policy.

Barroso speaking Sunday at the summit in the German Historical Museum.
Most feel that the EU's internal workings have failed to keep pace with the changes, leading to policy gridlock and handicapping Europe's efforts to develop a more assertive global role.

The stalled constitution would have created a bill of rights, a full-time EU president and foreign minister and faster decision making.

The Berlin Declaration recalled the beginnings of European unity among the ruins of World War II and the long struggle by the EU's new members in Eastern Europe to shake off Soviet domination.

Merkel and Barroso both turned their attention toward Belarus, a neighbor that EU leaders have denounced as the continent's last dictatorship.

Barroso assured the people of Belarus that they had a place in the "European family" and promised EU aid if the government adopted reforms to end its "self-imposed isolation."

n Russia will not be seeking membership in the European Union but hopes to develop ties with the group, President Vladimir Putin said in an article published Sunday on the Kremlin web site.

"A stable, flourishing and united Europe answers our interests," Putin said in the article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the EU's founding.

Putin praised Russian-EU relations, which he said were heading toward a "comprehensive, intensive and long-term cooperation."

AP, Reuters