The Flame of Hope in the European Union

Speaker's Corner: Don't take it for granted. Eric Lucas explains why the EU matters to travelers.

01.27.10 | 11:32 AM ET

European Union FlagPhoto of EU flag by rockcohen, via Flickr (Creative Commons)

The afternoon sun was highlighting the vineyard rows next to us as I asked my Croatian guide the key question of the day, if not of all days. She stopped short, appraised me for a minute and smiled, but not an easy smile, one weighed against both pain and promise.

“Of course I visit Serbia. I have many Serbian friends. They are our neighbors. Each people, each country, there are bad persons and good. We do not hold to the bitterness of the past,” Biljana declared. “We must not.

“Do you understand?”

Do I? I strolled off through the countryside, past the cinnamon vines of autumn, to the gate of a nearby cemetery. Perhaps here were buried a few of her contemporaries, Croatian citizens gunned down by Serbian troops in a war just half a generation old, or even Croatian children who stepped on land mines left behind, buried in the willow breaks along the Danube like toxic waste.

To declare that one must be neighborly to those who made war on you, that is not a sentiment I have often heard. The human race proves each new day that the word “humanity” is a misnomer; bitterness and conflict stretch hundreds if not thousands of years. In China I watched hordes of protesters surround the Japanese embassy, anger from World War II still cankering. In Alabama Confederate flags still fly, not for décor value but for hate. In Arizona armed vigilantes gun down Hispanics who have crossed the border. In the Caribbean, islanders cast fearful glances over their shoulders at Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. I have personally set foot on ground where millions—10 million people, roughly—have fought and died. I’ve been inside the Auschwitz gas chamber. Those are just the places I’ve been. Elsewhere dozens of fire-points flare daily around the world.

Yet in modern Europe 700 million people in dozens of different countries live in peace, prosperity and promise. These are countries whose armies have slaughtered each other. Countries whose rulers swapped borders, uprooted peoples and unleashed weapons as if they were just Tinker-toys, Monopoly boards and paper dolls. Countries where ghastly philosophies sought human extinctions. Countries in which old feuds date back to medieval times. What’s different now?

Simple—the European Union.

Tired of the death and disgrace and upheaval and hate, the nations of Europe, after World War II, history’s most awful conflict, deliberately decided to practice brotherhood and cooperation. First they used trade as a fulcrum, fashioning a common market for commerce. Then they flung open their borders to welcome their neighbors. Then they created a shared currency that is now the world’s strongest. Last, they signed a treaty declaring an umbrella confederation of nations joined together in economic, cultural and political cooperation. It’s worth hearing its objectives:

There is much more, but the brotherhood born of that—the Treaty of Maastricht, Feb. 7, 1992—now holds 27 members. There have been road bumps and there still are, but it is so successful and so popular that millions more want to belong. Peoples as diverse as the Turks, once regarded by some as the scourge of Europe, want to join. Albania, once one of the world’s most isolated nations. Iceland, a remote sub-Arctic outpost. Former Dutch colonies in the Caribbean want to join; so do some French-speaking tiny islands off East Africa that will soon become “outermost regions” of the EU. Soon to be shorn of ice, Greenland longs for the same. Switzerland is reconsidering its refusal.

And Serbia and Croatia want to join. The latter wishes war no more. The former, a prideful land which has occasionally acted like a certain much bigger country, now recognizes that in order to join the club it may not practice aggression. So Serbia, rather than prosecute its claim for Kosovo with guns, has gone to court. The International Court of Justice will decide whether Kosovo is an independent nation; meanwhile, it is under the protection of the EU.

These days wherever I go in Europe I see exactly what the Treaty of Maastricht envisioned less than a generation ago. Trucks bring goods from the Balkans to Birmingham; money flows back. A resident of Lappland may get in her car and drive, unhindered and unquestioned, to southernmost Portugal or the Black Sea. Workers from Poland serve me coffee in Kensington. Visitors from Kensington join me for coffee in Poland. In Malta, I ask a cab driver if he takes dollars. “No—Do you have euros?” he replies, providing an instant education in the economic power of peace and cooperation.

None of this is possible unless the participants not only espouse peace and cooperation but practice them. My last trip to Europe, in which we sailed up the Danube from Romania to Vienna, made me realize that experiencing Europe’s new peace and solidarity is one of the most rewarding reasons to visit. Each day in Europe offers a new marvel of what the EU has wrought.

I don’t mean that everything is roses and cherries. Ethnic strife persists, especially as the EU struggles to assimilate its growing Muslim population. But there is no war as a result. No armed guards with machine guns along European borders.

We just concluded the holiday season, when it is traditional to look for signs of peace on earth. The European Union is a compelling, practical, purposeful, shining example of just that. It is the brightest light of hope in the world.

A few weeks ago the chancellor of Germany and the president of France joined hands to lay a wreath at France’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, together commemorating Armistice Day, the end of World War I two lifetimes ago. Together, the leaders of two ancient enemy nations lit a perpetual flame. “This is the flame of hope,” said Nicolas Sarkozy of France. “This is a day of peace in Europe,” said Angela Merkel of Germany. “One must learn to rise above history.”

Not long before that astounding ceremony, in Croatia, Biljana had told me: “If you keep hold to the hate, you cannot even live with yourself. Today we live in peace. If you are going to find the life that’s good you must walk along with your neighbors.”

Aren’t we all neighbors, really? In Europe, they are, every day.

A previous version of this story appeared at

Eric Lucas writes for the Los Angeles Times, Michelin Travel Guides and many other publications. He lives in Seattle.

7 Comments for The Flame of Hope in the European Union

Garrett 01.27.10 | 1:14 PM ET

The overarching message I hear is that commercial interests drive social harmony.

I’d have to agree with you on that one. The EU is successful in areas where it drives increased monetary benefits. On the other hands, when more politically motivated matters enter the discussion, I’m not so sure I see a unified Europe.

Regardless, as a traveler, I do appreciate the relative continuity you feel when you cross a Euro border. It’s easy. It’s fun. I heart Europe!

Caitlin 01.27.10 | 3:02 PM ET

>>Switzerland is reconsidering its refusal.

Now that surprises me. Switzerland, after all, only just joined the United Nations. That was a big step for a nation so fiercely protective of its famous neutrality and independence.

Eva Holland 01.27.10 | 6:01 PM ET

Thanks for this, Eric. It’s easy to view today’s conflict hotspots as completely intractable problems and, on the flip side, to take Europe’s current stability and peace as a given. But people forget that all-out war was virtually a generational event in Europe for centuries, and that the years of stability and peace are a) new, and b) really remarkable.

Eliot 02.01.10 | 3:29 PM ET

Great article. I only wish more Europeans took this in account when they moaned about the EU. What is has achieved in terms of peace and harmony is unprecedented in two thousand years of European history.

Kevin 02.01.10 | 5:51 PM ET

Great to hear, seems like a step in the right direction.

piese auto 02.04.10 | 1:22 PM ET

What matters this flag. How to not matter when Europe is the continent most laden with history. Here you feel best by many poor people have passed along the history. And now, finally, are all united under one flag.

Pragya 02.05.10 | 7:47 AM ET

Commendable article… really have been successful in bringing the beauty of Europe live before our eyes…...who doesn’t want to be in this peace…....i wish all nations take examples from Europe & work towards bringing peace & happiness for all…......

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