I first traveled to Europe over three decades ago. There was no ‘EU’, no common currency, and the Berlin Wall had just come down. When I visited Prague, it was still the capital of a country called ‘Czechoslovakia’, and it had only recently cast off the shackles of totalitarianism. Wenceslas Square, the locus of revolutionary fervor, was filled with hundreds of framed photographs of dead patriots and the light of countless candles.
Coming from Western Europe, the contrast was striking. No neon lights or advertising of any kind, very few places to stay or eat—quite a contrast to today’s Prague. Those heady days were full of promise as a ‘new’ Europe was taking shape. Today, the grand European experiment in common markets, common currency, and no borders that began back then has taken some lumps.
Nationalism is on the rise, spurred in part by an unprecedented refugee crisis; economic realities have laid bare a schism between northern and southern European nations, like Greece, which has needed several bailout packages to pay its bills; inward-looking, nativist sentiment has influenced politics and brought about the first major retreat from the EU: the ‘Brexit’ vote in the United Kingdom.
These current rumblings are indeed troubling. And yet, there’s something about Europe and European culture that says, ‘We’ll be here’ no matter what.’ Europe is no stranger to cataclysm. The two World Wars of the last century laid the continent pretty low, turning once great cities into rubble, extinguishing millions of lives, and spawning a ‘Cold War’ that would play out for decades.
Of course, the great civilizations of Europe rebuilt after the Second World War and then engaged in a bold experiment that many hoped would, once and for all, put to rest the ancient rivalries and grievances that had simmered for centuries. Today that experiment in economic and political integration is being challenged like never before and we can only hope it frays no further.