Though it pains me to admit it, I will turn 50 later this year. There is one consolation for me, however, and that is that I am in good company. The European Community will also celebrate its 50th birthday this year.
The founding of the European Economic Community, forerunner to the modern EU, took place in 1957, marking a significant break with Europe's often war-torn past. 'Today,' notes Time magazine, 'Europe is the largest expanse of peace and widely shared prosperity in the world.'
Back in '57, six nations decided to pool sovereignty in multinational institutions, believing that common markets provide a stable environment in which economies can grow.
Gradually, others wanted to join the party, so that by the time the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, even former Soviet bloc countries were eager to join. In 2007, the EU has 27 member state, three of which are former Soviet republics.
It certainly has its critics, but the EU is unique; no other multinational group in the world has the kind of powerful institutions that regulate European standards. S
ays Time magazine: '[Europe's] nations are small enough and close enough to understand each other and have shared values; but at the same time, all of Europe lived through such horrors in the 20th-century that its nations' post-war leaders needed little convincing of the virtues of cooperation.'
Of course, there have been many bumps on the road to Europe's 50th birthday. Overregulation and the bloated size of Europe's bureaucratic institutions are among the most commonly criticised aspects of the union.
Having lived on the continent for almost ten years – and a further two years in the UK -- I can testify to the often stultifying effect overregulation has had on the entrepreneurial spirit of Europe's young adult populations.
Many young adults in Europe are blessed with awesome creativity, but having grown up with a cradle-to-grave welfare state and a heavily regulated business environment, are either psychologically ill-equipped to pioneer new ventures or stifled in their attempts to do so by red tape.
And a reliance on getting State approval before attempting anything new has, at times, blighted many a budding entrepreneurial career.
Some would observe that many entrepreneurs have benefited from the generous financial packages on offer through various EU funding programs. This is true; but working through the bureaucratic gobbledygook to find the right funding opportunities, then apply for them, is often more trouble than it's worth -- I speak from experience.
For all its weaknesses, though, the EU has good reason to celebrate this year. After all, it has brought many benefits to life in the European region.
Just ask the Irish. Their economy was struggling to survive 15 years ago, but with an injection of EU funding, their nation has become a thriving centre of growth and innovation.
Or ask the people of Riga, Latvia, a city I have visited many times and which shows constant signs of regeneration as a result of EU support -- though, it must be said, the rest of the nation still lags behind its capital.
Yes, there is a lot of baggage with EU membership. Yet, in the end, I think, the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. Otherwise, why would so many nations be eager to join -- and willing to jump through all kinds of economic hoops to become eligible in the first place?
Possibly the greatest positive to come from the union of European states is the cessation of conflict on what was once the most war-torn continent in the world.
Other benefits include Europe's capacity -- and willingness -- to aid the poor and disadvantaged and its ability to speak with one voice on challenges such as those facing the environment.
There are many challenges ahead for the European family of nations. Not the least of which is working out a common defence and security policy -- especially in the age of terrorist insurgency.
Immigration will continue to be a challenge for the next decade or so, as will trimming the bureaucracy of Europe, to make its businesses more competitive in a fast moving world.
One of Europe's greatest challenges is surely to discover -- or rediscover -- the 'cult' at the core of its culture.
We are not children of nothing. It may not be fashionable to say it in these politically correct times, but Europe's traditional values have been founded largely on a Judaeo-Christian worldview.
The poet T. S. Eliot, writing in 1945, clearly identified the link between faith and traditional European cultural values.
‘The dominant feature in creating a common culture between peoples, each of which has its own distinct culture, is religion,’ he wrote. ‘I am talking about the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is, and about the common cultural elements which this common Christianity has brought with it...'
In the midst of our celebrations it might pay us to pause and reflect on this. Even the least religious among us might benefit from asking: 'How can we pursue technological and social progress, with all the evident advantages they bring, without abandoning the values that have guided our moral compass and proven their worth in shaping our ethics?'
The point is not that we want or need Europe to driven by vested religious interests, or held accountable only to certain religious institutions. It's that we need to stop apologising for the strengths of our past and to start using them as a platform for our future.
I, for one, will raise a glass to Europe this year and quietly offer a prayer for its continued peace and prosperity - with a growing sense of its core identity and proper place in the global community.