On the occasion of the 1867 world expo, Victor Hugo declared: “All the railways that seem to be going in different directions, St. Petersburg, Madrid, Naples, Berlin, Vienna, London, are headed for the same place: peace. The day the first airship takes flight, the last tyranny will be buried underground.” But after that euphoria came the rude awakening of World War I. The prewar epoch, from 1870 to 1914, has been described as the “first globalisation”. The world would have to wait till the 1970s for another comparable wave of economic internationalisation. Globalisation does not steadily increase, it has ups and downs. Absent strong institutions and cross-border democracy, the “second” globalisation, that of the present era, could likewise end in crisis and conflict.

We are witnessing the rise of populist leaders not only in Europe, but also in America, Asia and Australia. And ethnic minorities – the faces of globalisation – are the scapegoats. This conflict, which puts democracy under heavy pressure, is described by sociologist Manuel Castells: “Increasingly, we see a cosmopolitan elite that has daily dealings with the whole world contrasted with countless local communities entrenched in spaces that constitute their last bulwark against the macro-forces.” A considerable portion of the population is digging its heels in, in a last-ditch effort to procure greater security. In a word, globalisation demands openness – but also protection.

Europe can quell the populist temptation

The current wave of globalisation once again is forcing European countries to overcome age-old dissensions. Asia’s success, for instance, provided key impetus for the creation of the European internal market and the adoption of the euro in the early 1990s. To be sure, a great many politicians and opinion leaders have likened European unification to a bureaucratic monster with a penchant for sticking its oar in everywhere. But it is chiefly international cooperation – and first and foremost the European Union – that makes the difference between the situation before 1914 and the current situation. Our ability to face and resolve such crises as the war in the Balkans or the financial crisis hinged on close collaboration beyond national borders.

So we actually need more Europe rather than less to quell the populist temptation. What sort of Europe do we have in mind? One that provides a protective buffer to absorb some of the shocks of globalisation and reclaim public debate so as to maintain its grip on the organisation of our society. European unification should be driven by the conviction that the world’s increased interdependency calls not only for openness, but also for protection. Hence the need for a balance to be struck in so many areas. Take the energy sector, for example: there are plenty of good reasons to reduce dependency on Middle Eastern oil, and it is precisely the elimination of internal borders that makes any viable approach to that problem possible.

Two steps forward, one step back

At present, the Union does not provide us adequate protection. The Greek financial saga seems a case in point. And yet, that is exactly how European integration has always advanced: two steps forward, one step back. On the other hand, we’ve been successfully shoring up this edifice of negotiation and compromise for over half a century now. And that is the chief civilising mission of our age, so it is inconceivable for the political centre to give up on Europe at this juncture. Europe should play a vital part in preventing the erosion of national parliaments, which are actually keeping the whole ship afloat. The unique rapprochement currently taking place in Europe will only motivate the citizenry if it’s made clear that the Union serves the member states and not the other way round.

Over a century ago, Victor Hugo painted a far more appealing picture of the shape of things to come. Still and all, however, postwar European unification has hugely contributed to the lasting peace in our part of the world. Maybe the high-speed rail lines we’re building all over the continent these days will contribute to a new experience of Europe. It might be a bit much to say they’ve all got the same destination: peace. But the reunification of the continent has set up a base from which to face the world with a newfound self-assurance.