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Envisioning Europe - What Have We Learnt?

What can the past teach us about our vision for the future?

Since June 2021, the House of European History has been hosting a series of online talks with internationally acclaimed scholars of history and the social sciences. Titled ‘Envisioning Europe’, each lecture examines an historical development or theme that can help illuminate aspects of the continent’s identity(ies), and provide insights into current challenges. This series is being organised in response to the Conference on the Future of Europe (CoFoE), a transnational initiative in multiple formats run by the European Parliament, Council and Commission. Comprising twelve talks, we are nearing Envisioning Europe’s halfway point, with the fifth lecture taking place on 21 December.

True to the CoFoE’s open and participatory spirit, we livestream each talk on our YouTube channel. This gives previous visitors and new audiences in Europe and elsewhere the chance to raise questions and comments in real time.

Fittingly, our series began on 22 June with a talk by Ivan Krastev titled ‘How is COVID-19 changing Europe as we know it?’ The founder of Sofia’s Centre for Liberal Strategies argued that “paradoxically, the moment Europe closed its borders, the feeling of living in a common Europe became stronger than ever”, as people across borders began to compare their experiences of the pandemic. Describing COVID-19 as “Europe’s demographic moment”, he also discussed how it acted as a wake-up call to the potential consequences posed by an aging population. When asked by a participant about his expectations for the CoFoE, Krastev called for clearer discourse from Brussels, replying that “We could try to use these talks to not simply do things differently, but also to justify policies differently…Policy is not simply what the government is doing, but also the language with which it is justifies certain policies.”

Our second talk was given by Professor Markéta Křížová of Charles University, Prague on 21 September, in which she discussed the impact made by colonialism on European identity. Arguing that overseas expansion from the 15th – 18th centuries helped give rise to notions of racist superiority, Professor Křížová demonstrated how explorers and thinkers defined European identity as a ‘civilised’ culture in contrast to the supposedly backward and barbaric lifestyles of locals in the Americas and Africa: “Europe’s colonial past is not something that is decisively over. It remains part of the European experience.”

Professor Kerry Brown of King’s College London delivered our third Envisioning Europe lecture on 19 October. Examining how different Western perceptions of China developed over 800 years, he explained that “the relationship is built on a long and complex history, and one that has never been properly written…My project is to write that overview.” Professor Brown also pointed out that the experiences of Western and Eastern Europe with China differed sharply due to the legacy of Communism.

When asked by a participant about how Europe could pursue a fruitful relationship with China, he replied that two contrasting discourses are simultaneously being articulated; one of trading with the power and cooperating on climate change, the other on condemning human rights abuses and recent developments in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. The co-existence of a positive and negative narrative can be perceived throughout Europe’s 800- year relationship with China, and have emerged because of this history.

For our fourth talk on 23 November, Professor Philipp Ther from the University of Vienna unpacked the history of refugees in modern Europe. Detailing how victims of political and religious persecution fled to different parts of Europe and North America from the revolutions of the 19th century to the conflict in Yugoslavia, he used several biographical case studies to bring these stories to life. For instance, the Polish-Austrian-French author and ‘eternal refugee’ Manès Sperber had to flee countries several times due to the World Wars and was imprisoned on two occasions. Facing poverty and isolation for much of his life, he wrote in his memoirs: ‘Sinking from level to level, I was to find out that every fall can trigger a further, deeper fall and that the abyss has no one.’

In response to a question about what policymakers could learn from different historical approaches to integration, Professor Ther maintained that “it pays to invest” in language and vocational training to help refugees find employment. However, government policies must be backed up by pragmatic actions on a societal level.

Our fifth talk on 21 December with Professor Mary Kaldor will explore the history of how social movements have envisaged the EU’s role in the world. We invite you to join us on this journey of envisioning Europe’s future through turning to the past. What actions will you take when you find your opinions and assumptions challenged by historical evidence?

Upcoming lectures


Mary Kaldor

Global Politics versus Great Power Rivalry: The Role of the EU


Mathieu Segers

The Europe of European Integration and its Vicissitudes; Past, Present and Future


Milena Dragićević Šešić

The Voice from the semi-periphery: How to build a future (fair) European culture of memory. The role of contemporary arts


Heike Wieters

The many pasts and futures of Europe


Gurminder K. Bhambra

A Decolonial Project for Europe


Jan Zielonka

The EU and Democratic Experimentation


Toni Haastrup

Is a feminist foreign policy possible for the European Union?


Kalypso Nicolaïdis

Topic will be confirmed on 7 January