Forty years on, is the European train still running on track?

Flags and flowers set party wheels in motion as Rome celebrates the birth of a Union, writes Sarah Helm
Flowerbeds in the Piazza Venezia have been laid with the colours of Europe and the Piazza Campidoglio has been decked with European flags.

The Municipal Police Force in Rome has been practising its "tunes for Europe" and a March for Europe has been prepared by the association of amici dell'Europa - friends of Europe. Even the Pope, it seems, is joining in the the fun. A short film entitled Giovanni Paolo II in Europa is to be shown in the Opera.

Rome is today celebrating a 40th birthday - the anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome - and the Italians are determined to stage the event in style. After all, Italy was one of the exclusive club of six which was here at the birth of the Common Market - or, as it is now, the European Union.

Particularly among those founding six - Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg - nostalgia will no doubt hang heavy in the air as they look back to their early ideals and objectives. It was all about achieving peace, they will recall. The words of Jean Monnet, principal architect of the Treaty of Rome, who called for "the victors and vanquished of two world wars to exercise joint sovereignty over their joint resources" will no doubt be recalled. Self-congratulation is bound to ring out over the popping balloons. "Forty years of peace," Jacques Santer, the European Commission president was heard to proclaim yesterday before the celebrations had even begun. "Forty more years", they will all chant today.

And, of course, there will be the usual party jokes. "Remember how you Brits said the treaty stood no chance," the six will tease, referring to the scorn which the British poured upon the draft Rome treaty in 1955. "Monsieur le President, messieurs, au revoir et bonne chance," scoffed pipe-smoking Russell Bretherton, Britain's envoy to those treaty negotiations, before walking out and banging Britain's door against Europe for another 18 years.

Yet, like any 40th birthday, this one will be characterised not just by nostalgia and jollity, but also by soul-searching and self-doubt. Today's 15 member states are about to set out on another round of integration by signing the Treaty of Amsterdam, in June, and embarking on Economic and Monetary Union on 1 January 1999. The next round of enlargement, bringing in countries from east and central Europe, is also about to begin.

These events bring big change and big questions for Europe. And, as anyone who has had a 40th birthday knows, the biggest question of all is - what is it all for?

Vaclav Havel, President of the Czech Republic - an aspiring member - asked this question in particularly poignant terms during a recent address to the European Parliament. "I find," he said, "that as Europe goes ahead with its unification it has to rediscover, consciously embrace and in some way articulate its soul or its spirit, its underlying idea, its purpose and its inner ethos ... and, finally, ascertain what its mission is."

Many of Europe's leaders would today still answer that that mission is peace. But even among the founding six the old rhetoric rings hollow with ordinary people. Younger generations, who have forgotten the war, are no longer prepared to blindly follow the early ideals of Europe's founding fathers, and are asking tough questions about what economic benefits Europe will bring and what their stake is in its future.

Newer members largely joined for economic reasons. The reluctant Danes, for example, were told that the European Union was about being able to sell butter and bacon. But, today, doubts about the economic aims of Europe are as deep as they ever have been. Rising unemployment and spending cuts are being blamed on efforts by member states to meet the criteria for economic and monetary union.

Since the end of the Cold War, enlargement has increasingly been offered as the new "mission" for the union. Bringing in the former Soviet bloc countries will give integration a form of moral underpinning, leaders hope.

The new draft treaty for Amsterdam proposes another possible new "mission". The EU should aim to create an area of "freedom, justice and security" says the document, in an effort to combat international crime, terrorism and drug trafficking.

All these new missions for Europe will no doubt be set out during the 40th anniversary. But the union appears to have little idea of how to communicate them to its "citizens".