The first thing that may come to mind is the glorified idea of the American dream, a notion whereby with honest hard work and a sprinkle of risk taking, one can achieve just about anything in the United States of America. 

But is America unique in how it embodies, or used to embody, this ephemeral concept? And in Europe? Is there a European dream? And if so, how does it look like? Is it rooted in the American notion of individual entrepreneurship or it may rather be found in some sense of community and solidarity? We might see a strong comeback of the idea behind the European construction – that together we are stronger! 

For the European Union’s founding fathers, the European dream was to ensure peace and shared prosperity following the nightmare and ravage of two world wars. But how do Europeans imagine the Europe of their dreams today?

As a recent survey on European dreams for the Future of Europe shows, Europeans perceive the European Union (EU) positively, in the sense that almost every second European chose Europe as the best continent to live in. This choice appears to be influenced by their country’s macroeconomic status whereby Germany and the Nordic countries scored highest in terms of popularity, followed by the United States, Canada and Australia as non-European countries topping the list of those surveyed.

Additionally, out of the 14,000 EU Dream survey respondents, 78 percent expressed support for democracy in Europe (albeit this should be tempered with the fact that 22 percent conveyed support for a strong leader), and over 45 percent identifies themselves first as European. The strong affinity with Europe is even more accentuated among the youth as over 57 percent of young respondents (aged 18-24) sees themselves first as European and then as their country nationals. These are positive findings that must further motivate Europe’s leaders to give EU citizens a great say in the much-awaited Future of Europe conference.

It is easy to forget, but as recent as 15 years ago, people across the globe looked to the EU as an inspiring example. In his 2004 book “The European Dream”, Jeremy Rifkin analysed the evolution of the European project and highlighted the differences between American and European values. Particularly, Rifkin highlighted the EU’s way of embracing new ideas and social progress: “Now Europeans have a new dream, one more expansive than the one they left behind: to enjoy the quality of life, one respect one another’s cultures, to create a sustainable relationship with the natural world, and to leave in peace with their fellow human beings. The European Dream and universal human rights come together in a single package.”

However, only four years after the publication of Rifkin’s book, the global financial crisis cast a long shadow over his optimism. Doom and gloom were the prevailing sentiments among Europe’s population in the aftermath of the 2008 global economic crisis. Europe’s southern Member States were hit particularly hard, having to cope with high levels of unemployment, budget deficits and spiking debt levels. Europe’s political response to the economic crisis – the imposition of austerity measures – was perceived as insufficient by some, and as outrageous by many. Europe’s unity and its capacity to address the economic downturn exposed the continents North-South divide and the perceived lack of solidarity of the richer Northern countries towards the crisis-stricken Southern member states.

Public trust in the EU was further eroded a few years later in 2015. The so-called refugee crisis emphasised the shortcomings of the existing asylum system, the lack of a comprehensive approach to migration and even a stark difference between Member States’ responses that ranged from building walls to contain the refugee influx to Germany’s “Wir schaffen das“. 

For some, and eurosceptics in particular, these crises placed a spotlight on the fragility of the political integration and on Europe’s capacity to act as one. It seemed that the EU was unable to respond to citizens’ expectations and dreams for a better life. Popular support for the project was wavering. 

The survey did not inquire only about dreams. It also asked Europe’s citizens to share their biggest fears or worst nightmares concerning the coming decade and shed some light on the issues or areas where Europe is expected to do more too. Climate change, migration and social inequalities were perceived by the EU14 respondents as the biggest challenges facing Europe in the next 10 years and that would require stronger action(s) and concrete results.

Yet, the main takeaway is that the European dream is the idea of Europe itself, despite all its shortcomings. There is a strong identification with Europe and EU identity and the value of Europe’s welfare model and democratic achievements. 

The EU dream is Europe itself but not necessarily the Europe of today.

If we compare the Europe of today with that of four decades ago, EU dream respondents seem to look back to that Europe with nostalgia. The EU of the 1970s 1980s was seen as a visionary political project that was ahead of its time: a democratic Europe, a Europe of welfare states. They expressed a longing for an age that they recall as stable, predictable and safe. This is what EU citizens dream of. 

EU citizens still want to give the European Union a chance and this is a silver lining that must be seized in the debate around the Future of Europe. 

Today, as Europe’s and global leaders grapple with the greatest health crises that Europe has arguably faced since its creation, the COVID-19 pandemic and the forecast of a deep recession, it could be easy to conclude that we are facing a make-it-or-break-it moment of the European dream. 

And even though holding on to the European dream appears to be a herculean task, the recently proposed post-COVID-19 recovery plan for Europe ‘Next Generation EU’ is a much-welcomed development that showcases the drive of Europe’s leaders to push for more – not less – Europe. 

The good news is that for the majority of EU dream respondents, it seems that the European dream is best expressed by driving forward Europe’s unity, by articulating a new vision for the Future of Europe centred in strong welfare states to address social inequalities, with a special attention to the quality of life and the sustainability of our planet.

This is a powerful imagery. This is the European dream that should inform and inspire decision-makers in the debate on the Future of Europe.