The second-smallest continent is a center of trade and culture. Its strategic position between Africa and Asia, navigable rivers, fertile soil, and diverse agricultural and industrial products have made it a global power throughout recorded history.
Europe is home to 44 countries, including Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, and Kazakhstan; the Balkans; France, Germany, and Italy; Greece, Portugal, and Spain; Denmark, Austria, and Hungary; Finland, Sweden, and Norway; and Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands. Its coastline is more than 24,000 miles long, featuring a number of major island archipelagoes and the Scandinavian, Iberian, and Italian peninsulas. Its distinctive wind patterns and ocean currents help maintain temperate weather, allowing the cultivation of diverse food crops such as wheat, olives, and grapes.
Its rich cultural heritage, including a wide variety of languages, has given rise to a distinctive European identity that transcends national boundaries and influences the world. Its political and economic integration have contributed to its prosperity. The European Union’s so-called “four freedoms” of movement of people, goods, services, and capital, and its common market have lowered barriers to trade and investment and facilitated cross-border cooperation. The Union has also sought to recast and realise centuries-old ideas about the nature of Europe with its policies on human rights, democracy, and rule of law.
Despite the EU’s impressive achievements, it faces challenges today: the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Britain’s departure from the EU, a financial slump, refugee emergencies, and the COVID-19 pandemic have all shaken European confidence. These crises, along with the EU’s slow progress on enlargement, have underscored the fact that many Europeans still have very different ideas about what it means to be European.
How are Europeans defining and responding to these challenges? What are the competing visions of Europe?
The concept of what it means to be European has always been a fluid one. It is not simply about shared values or interests, although those are important, but also about a shared sense of place and time. This is evident in the diverse ways that Europeans have responded to events and developments over time — whether it was the Roman invasion of Gaul or De Gaulle’s call for a single Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals, or today’s EU leaders’ emphasis on their core mission of spreading the benefits of its model worldwide. Each of these visions has its own strengths and weaknesses. The challenge is to find a common ground for future policy-making. That will require a deeper understanding of how different ideas about Europe shape and reinforce each other. A key task will be to find a way to make the European idea more inclusive so that it can reach from the icebergs of the Arctic to the sand dunes of the Sahara. The future of Europe will depend on it.