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On May 9, Europe Day, the Salone dei Cinquecento in Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio hosted a European election debate among four politicians campaigning for the job of European Commission president. As a co-moderator, I could feel the joys, sorrows, achievements and catastrophes of the continent’s history filling the chamber almost like physical presences. If it is premature to speak of a Europe truly whole and free, it is nonetheless impressive that a Belgian, a Frenchman, a German and a Luxembourger were debating, in English, the future of Europe ahead of an election featuring voters from 28 countries.

Over the past 500 years, Europe has exported its religions, ideals of humanism and urban civilisation, murderous political ideologies, wars, scientific inventions, styles of architecture, fashions, music, literature, sports and much more. And all from a continent that makes up about 7 per cent of the world’s land surface.

This special issue of FT Weekend Magazine aims to give a sense of what today’s Europe feels and looks like – and how it is reshaping itself. Stefan Wagstyl, our chief Germany correspondent, sketches the changing face of the country. Once a divided nation at the heart of a divided Europe, it is now a united country with more foreign-born inhabitants than France or the UK, despite the imperial legacies of those two states. It is a tribute to Germany’s transformation that a survey conducted last year for the BBC across the globe found that Germany was the world’s most popular country.

Poland’s foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, interviewed in this edition, has thought deeply about European security and co-operation and Germany’s role within it. He embodies what is new in the world outlook from central and eastern Europe: having come of political age in the late Soviet era, he is wary of Russian intentions and a strong Atlanticist but he is also anxious that Germany should embrace its responsibilities as the continent’s leading power and not be overburdened by history.

When Europe has captured the headlines in the past five years, it has tended to be for upheavals such as the sovereign debt and banking crisis and Russia’s intervention in Ukraine. Courtney Weaver, from our Moscow bureau, travels to Crimea just after its annexation by Russia, where a leader of the Crimean Tatar ethnic minority comments bleakly that “everyday xenophobia is rising”.

Social tensions take a different form in southern Europe, where the eurozone’s crisis struck hardest. In Spain, Tobias Buck, the FT’s Madrid bureau chief, finds those most affected are migrants, the poorly educated and the young, unable to find work because of a two-tier labour market that discriminates in favour of those whose jobs are protected under Spanish law. There is also a gulf between the generations in a country with a youth unemployment rate of 55 per cent.

From the US or fast-growing emerging markets, it is tempting to see Europe as a continent of over-regulated businesses, a high-cost labour force and an excessively generous welfare state. Sarah Gordon, our European business editor, tells the story of Airbus, the aircraft maker that overcame the political odds to become a successful example of pan-European industrial co-operation. Might similar projects be possible if the right balance can be struck between government support for innovation and private sector initiative?

Here is where the 28-nation European Union comes into the picture. It is striking that, whereas Ukrainian demonstrators flew the EU flag during the February revolution in Kiev, and Serbs have just elected a government committed to joining the EU, the prospect looms in the UK of an in-or-out referendum in 2017. London, in some respects the most global of all European cities, is also the capital of the EU’s most eurosceptic country.

Alex Barker, of our Brussels bureau, recalls that Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, is the son of one of the first British officials to serve in the European Commission, who sent the young Boris to the European School in the Belgian capital thinking that he might emerge as “a good little European”. It turned out differently – but a more revealing point is that, 41 years after joining the bloc, the UK is the most under-represented member state in the EU’s bureaucracy.

In spite of the UK’s semi-detachment, what comes across in this magazine is how Europe contains the most interconnected set of countries on earth. A hundred years after the outbreak of the first world war, the dream of several dozen nations living in harmony and freedom and enjoying a high quality of life remains alive. Enjoy the read.

Tony Barber is the FT’s Europe editor; tony.barber@ft.com

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