PARIS – Once again, Europe seems to have reached a fork in the road. In one direction lies the future as described by pessimists, who argue that rising populist movements and the plunge of the euro are evidence of the continent’s coming slide into geopolitical and economic oblivion. In the other direction lies a steep upward path to Europe’s integration and reemergence as a global power – the course, optimists say, that the continent will take as it wakes up and recognizes that it must have the capacity to weather the harshest storms.
There is no telling which future will be realized. Is Europe “a grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant,” as Pope Francis put it when he addressed the European Parliament last November? Or is it a phoenix, about to rise (yet again) from its ashes? The outcome depends, of course, on how Europeans respond to their current travails. And as they contemplate their choices, they would be wise to consider how the continent is perceived from the outside.
For starters, it is important to acknowledge that the outlook looks bleak. Seventy years after the liberation of Auschwitz, Jews are still being attacked and murdered in European cities. More than 50 years after the end of the Algerian War, European Muslims face more discrimination than ever. With Russian-backed separatists – and maybe even Russian troops – battling government forces in Ukraine, the specter of war is once again stalking the continent. And the election of a leftist government in Greece has raised the question of whether introducing the euro was a good idea.
On the other hand, Europe has faced worse – much worse – and emerged stronger than ever. After the first half of the twentieth century – the bloodiest period of human history – the continent’s leaders returned from the battlefield to lay the foundations of lasting European peace. Europe may never regain its standing as the center of the world, but it can continue to be both an important actor and an attractive model for others.