I have spent much of the past week in what we used to call Eastern Europe.
Riga, Latvia is fast adapting to its new life within the umbrella of the EU; while Kiev in the Ukraine is emerging from seventy years of communist domination to align itself increasingly with Western European values.
Riga is moving to establish itself as the new Zurich of the east – a financial hub; dynamic, cosmopolitan and business-friendly.
Kiev has a little further to go and is still working to get its political house in order. It’s not surprising that this should take a while, as communism left behind it a moribund culture, both politically and socially. People seem hopeful, though, and change continues.
It’s fascinating to watch as nations like these work with a passion to become a part of the European community. For them, being a part of the EU brings with it many benefits.
The most obvious, of course, is financial. Huge investment of European funds allows for vast improvements in infrastructure and lifestyle, especially in the main cities.
Other benefits include the ease of travel within the European zone. Instead of standing in long lines awaiting clearance at passport control, as I did once again coming into Kiev this week, most people are able to cross national borders with relative ease.
European bureaucracy can, for those of us born into more laissez faire economies, seem stifling and over-bearing. For former eastern bloc residents it brings new levels of freedom; a breath of fresh air after stifling communist controls.
Businesses and families are able to acquire land – something unknown under communism – and receive certain protections under law, in regard to privacy and human rights.
So, you can understand why the Ukraine looks forward to an eventual entry to the EU and why Latvia is delighted to have been made a member. There are real benefits in signing up to the so-called European ideal.
What is strange is that at the very moment when so many nations aspire to the European ideal, so few in Europe seem to be too sure what it actually means.
The attempt to agree on a European constitution has, by popular demand, been shelved for the time being and nobody seems too sure where it will head next. This is just a symptom of a deeper uncertainty.
Nobody doubts that Europe is better off living under one umbrella than it was under the previous system of confusing national alliances and inequitable trade structures which all too often led to war. Yet we don’t seem too certain about what is, or should be, the heart of the union.
What is the European ideal?
At its most basic level, it is about nations forming alliances of trade and political agreement, based upon shared mores and values which have traditionally formed the core of European societies.
The practical functioning of the European ideal is the work of intra-national bureaucracies and national governments.
But the glue which holds the union together is, at least in theory, more about culture than politics or economics.
That’s why Turkey’s admission to the EU remains an issue of hot debate. Some authorities seem unsure that Turkish society embodies the cultural values which will allow it to fit easily into the European family.
Whether or not this is true, it is a mistake to think of culture as merely a product of social, political or economic factors. The very root of the word culture reflects a moral or even spiritual aspect of national identity.
Anthropologically, the word ‘cult’ refers to the religious practice and the spiritual identity of a people. No culture can remain strong unless it has at its core a resilient sense of its identity, based upon some transcendant, usually spiritual narrative.
Europe may add members to its club, but it’s hard to see Europe becoming more homogenous without a renewal of inner energy, a return to some sense of its core spiritual identity. Spirituality has fuelled the development of Europe's cultures for centuries.
Europe does not need any more institutionalisation – in religion or anywhere else.
But a recognition of its spiritual heritage and the human and faith values on which Europe’s cultures have thrived for centuries, could only help to bring a greater sense of unity in diversity and a passion for a common destiny.