The European Union celebrates the 60th year of the signing of the 1957 Treaty of Rome which marked the creation of the nation-bloc, on 25 March. On the eve of the anniversary, Pope Francis voiced his concerns for the future of the EU and warned against the growing threat of populism.

Speaking at a summit prior to the start of the weekend celebrations in Rome, Francis addressed European leaders including Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande on 24 March and pressed them for the need of international solidarity, which he said was the "most effective antidote to modern forms of populism".

"Europe finds new hope when man is the centre and the heart of her institutions," he said. "I am convinced that this entails an attentive and trust-filled readiness to hear the expectations voiced by individuals, society and the peoples who make up the Union.

"Sadly, one frequently has the sense that there is a growing split between the citizens and the European institutions," the pope added.

In the wake of Britain's plans to trigger Article 50, Francis said that it was imperative that the EU now find a new vision. "When a body loses its sense of direction and is no longer able to look ahead, it experiences a regression and, in the long run, risks dying," he said.

Referring to the recent Westminster terror attack, he urged the leaders to promote spiritual values and ideals. "For it is the best antidote against the vacuum of values of our time, which provides a fertile terrain for every form of extremism," he added.

Francis, a staunch supporter of migrants' rights, also voiced concerns over European nations' growing reluctance to take in refugees. "It is not enough to handle the grave crisis of immigration of recent years as if it were a mere numerical or economic problem, or a question of security," he said, calling instead for more empathy and tolerance.

Leaders from the EU's 27 member states will mark the 60th anniversary in Rome this weekend but celebrations are expected to be shadowed by Brexit talks which begin next week.

Pope Francis EU
Pope Francis poses in the Sistine chapel during a meeting with EU leaders at the Vatican March 24, 2017 REUTERS/Osservatore Romano/Handout