At the same time we are confused over how this is meant to work. While generally agreeing that it is possible for an individual to absorb a particular culture (given the right degree of enthusiasm both from the individual and the culture) whatever their skin colour, we know that we Europeans cannot become whatever we like. We cannot become Indian or Chinese, for instance. And yet we are expected to believe that anyone in the world can move to Europe and become European.

If being ‘European’ is not about race – as we hope it is not – then it is even more imperative that it is about ‘values’. This is what makes the question ‘What are European values?’ so important. Yet this is another debate about which we are wholly confused.

Are we, for instance, Christian? In the 2000s this debate had a focal point in the row over the wording of the new EU Constitution and the absence of any mention of the continent’s Christian heritage. Pope John Paul II and his successor tried to rectify the omission. As the former wrote in 2003, ‘While fully respecting the secular nature of the institutions I wish once more to appeal to those drawing up the future European constitutional treaty, so that it will include a reference to the religious and in particular the Christian heritage of Europe.’

The debate did not only divide Europe geographically and politically, it also pointed to a glaring aspiration. For religion had not only retreated in Western Europe. In its wake there arose a desire to demonstrate that in the twenty-first century Europe had a self-supporting structure of rights, laws and institutions which could exist even without the source that had arguably given them life.

Like Kant’s dove we wondered whether we wouldn’t be able to fly faster if we lived ‘in free air’ without the bother of the wind keeping us aloft. Much rested on the success of this dream. In the place of religion came the ever-inflating language of ‘human rights’ (itself a concept of Christian origin). We left unresolved the question of whether or not our acquired rights were reliant on beliefs that the continent had ceased to hold or whether they existed of their own accord. This was, at the very least, an extremely big question to have left unresolved while vast new populations were being expected to ‘integrate’.

An equally significant question erupted at the same time around the position and purpose of the nation state. From the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648 up to the late twentieth century the nation state in Europe had generally been regarded not only as the best guarantor of constitutional order and liberal rights but the ultimate guarantor of peace. Yet this certainty also eroded. Central European figures like Chancellor Kohl of Germany in 1996 insisted that ‘The nation state … cannot solve the great problems of the twenty-first century.’

Disintegration of the nation states of Europe into one large integrated political union was so important, Kohl insisted, that it was in fact ‘a question of war and peace in the twenty-first century’. Others disagreed, and twenty years later just over half of the British people demonstrated at the ballot box that they were unpersuaded by Kohl’s argument. But once again, whatever one’s views on the matter, this was a huge question to leave unresolved at a time of vast population change. …