It was a gesture rich in symbolism. As the leaders of the 28 countries of the European Union arrived in the Belgian town of Ypres yesterday evening, German chancellor Angela Merkel broke with protocol. She strayed from the red carpet to shake hands with local people who had gathered nearby.
The powerful image of a German leader being welcomed on the soil of Flanders was a reminder of the distance Europe had travelled since the first World War.
One hundred years after an assassination in a corner of the Balkans triggered a war that ravaged a continent, the leaders of the 28 EU member states put their differences aside and stood together to commemorate the war.
Walking through the cobbled streets of Ypres towards the Menin Gate, Taoiseach Enda Kenny and prime minister David Cameron were deep in talk, six months after their symbolic joint visit to the first World War battlefields last December.
As each of the 28 leaders took their place in front of their national flag beneath the arch of the Menin Gate, the Last Post was played, as has been the case every evening since 1928, in memory of the soldiers who never returned from battle.
The gate is inscribed with the names of thousands of fallen, including Mr Cameron’s great uncle.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy read from For the Fallen, a poem written by Robert Laurence Binyon in September 2014.
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. / At the going down of the sun and in the morning/ We will remember them.”
The leaders responded in unison: “We will remember them.”
As the leaders of France, Britain and Germany stood side by side, a minute’s silence was observed, before a flurry of red poppy petals was released from the ceiling.
Accompanied by students from their respective countries, the leaders made their way to a specially-commissioned ‘Peace Bench’, a circular stone structure symbolising unity, openness and protection.
Irish student Paul Hughes presented Taoiseach Enda Kenny with a small ceramic flower and Irish flag, which the Taoiseach placed in the centre of the sculpture, the tricolour taking its place alongside the other 27 flags of the European Union.
Moving between English, French and German, European Council president Herman Van Rompuy said the commemoration was “not about the end of the war, or any battle or victory – it is about how it could start, about the mindless march to the abyss, about the sleepwalking, about the millions who were killed on all sides.”
He contrasted the innocence and idealism of the summer of 1914 with the violent reality of war: “the stench, the fear . . . a spiral of destruction engulfing this continent of civilised nations.”
As the late-afternoon sun moved lower in the sky, the leaders solemnly made their way back to the Cloth Hall in the Ypres city hall – and back to realpolitik. At an informal dinner last night leaders were due to discuss the election of the next European Commission president, an issue that has divided the union. Britain, which is expected to be outvoted today on the nomination of Jean-Claude Juncker, has hinted that the controversy may hasten Britain's exit from the EU should a referendum on membership take place by 2017.
Yesterday was a solemn reminder of the motivation that lay behind the establishment of the European Community more than half a century ago.
Close to where the politicans dined yesterday evening lie dozens of battlefields and cemeteries, potent visual reminders of the chaos that engulfed the continent a century ago.
Among them are the graves of thousands of Irish soldiers, many of whom lost their lives in conflicts such as the Battle of Messines and Battle of Passchendaele. Just six miles north of Ypres is Langemark cemetery where 44,000 German soldiers are buried, many of them teenagers were mowed down as they charged into battle in the autumn of 1914, linking arms and singing.
Whether yesterday’s spirit of reconciliation will be enough to resolve the deep differences that exist between member states over the future leadership of the European Commission remains to be seen. But yesterday’s commemorative event may serve as a reminder of the true achievement of the European project.