Today, June 6th, 2014, veterans and national leaders gather in Normandy to commemorate the Allied landings seventy years ago that began the liberation of France and the western half of Europe. Later this year, on November 9th, the world will observe the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism, which made Europe “whole and free.”

Since those two dates, Europe has evolved into the most impressive experiment in peaceful coexistence in the whole recorded history of humankind.

Yet Europe is misunderstood, underestimated, a source of disappointment, dissatisfaction and even anxiety. In the recent European Parliament elections, extreme nationalist and far-right parties, often bearing messages of intolerance, won the day in France and in Great Britain and achieved significant votes in Austria and Germany.

Outside Europe, the half-decade-long crisis of the eurozone economies–Greece, Ireland, Portugal, Cyprus and Spain–has revealed weaknesses in the structure and functioning of the European Union and fueled financial instability across the globe.

What, then, does Europe mean?

Since then-French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed the creation of European Coal and Steel Community in the Salon de l’Horloge at the Quai d’Orsay in Paris on May 9th, 1950, the idea of “Europe” has meant first and foremost a place of peace. Europe has meant a renouncement of conflict among civilized nations and peoples, a pooling of interests so strong that armed belligerency became not only unthinkable but illogical.

A mere generation ago, when people from the British Isles, or the Iberian peninsula, or Scandinavia or even Greece, intended to travel on the Continent, they would say they were “going to Europe.” Today, “Europe,” for them, is no longer “there” but “here.”

The British have for centuries held an ambivalent view of Europe, cherishing its common heritage while remaining fundamentally a people which, as Winston Churchill said, would “always choose the open sea.” That equivocation remains evident today.

Once the Berlin Wall fell and the reunification of Germany became inevitable, the impulsion to incorporate the former Comecon countries left no choice but to favor enlargement of the European Community. Recent events in Ukraine demonstrate how strong an appeal the European ideal exerts. The flags being waved in Maidan Nezalezhnosti were not the banners of the United States or the United Nations, but of the European Union.

The Baltic states, formerly parts of the Soviet Union and now members both of NATO and the EU, have, like Poland, become inviolate even to the expansionist ambitions of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Russia itself has always harbored the ambition to be considered a European country, in terms of civilization and culture, while still stirred by its Slavic roots and transcontinental sweep.

In the United States, Europe is often wrongly considered a problem solved. To be sure, US sacrifices and statesmanship have contributed enormously to the building of Europe, but the current negotiations on the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), for example, have made plain to Americans that Europe sees itself as a guardian of higher standards than the United States in areas such as food safety, personal privacy and worker protection.

In Africa, Asia and South America, national borders and arrangements between states have stayed largely unchanged since the end of the Second World War, or at least since decolonization in the 1960s, while Europe has evolved and unified. For those peoples, nations, and governments, Europe should constitute an ideal, a model, an inspiration.

Without doubt, the European Union must improve the efficiency and transparency of its institutions. European leaders ought to do a better job of agreeing and announcing a vision for Europe in the future.

But in reality Europe dissatisfies and disappoints not because it means so little, but because it means so much, and to so many: everything from a free-trade area to a common culture to a particularly civilized way of conceiving of society. When temptation beckons us to cynicism about the evolution of Europe, we would do well to recall the stunning success that Europe represents. As we commemorate D-Day, we must recognize how much better the European project is compared to a continent incarnadine with the bloodshed of war.

Related Experts: Nicholas Dungan