© Mengxin Li
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This is one of six winning student columns for the Financial Times’ Future of Europe Project, a conversation with the young minds who will inherit Europe about the issues that will shape their future. Last week, our columnists shared their views. This week, the students share theirs.

American movies depict a unique way of life, where everything is possible. In French movies not everything is possible, but at least there is wine and cheese. But how would we recognise (not just in a movie) if there is such a thing as a European way of life?

Lately Europe has been confronted with this very question: how do we identify what is so often emphasised in political speeches — European values and a shared European identity that links the southernmost European town of Ierapetra in Crete with the westernmost Dingle peninsula in County Kerry, Ireland?

Looming Brexit, fierce resistance by eastern European member states to accepting refugees from war-torn Syria and Libya and the emergence of separatist movements such as in Catalonia expose the limits of the idea of a shared European identity.

The four founding freedoms of the EU — free movement of people, goods, capital and labour — though of central importance, lack a powerful unifying vision to unite the citizens of the bloc.

In this distinct moment of crisis these principles are seemingly not enough to appease those who perceive the EU as an exclusively economic project, or those who promote fantasies of renewed nationalist agendas while glossing over Europe’s not-so-distant violent past. Still others claim that “no borders, no nations” would be a good basis on which to get rid of both the EU and its capitalist system.

Those four founding freedoms, which influence national governance, international trade deals and the lives of 510m EU citizens, are not so much the foundation of European identity, but the result of the conviction that there is such a thing as Europe.

This underlying belief was not invented by policymakers in Strasbourg or Brussels, but instead dates back to the 18th century. In 1796 nearly all of Europe was at war with each other. The conservative author and fierce critic of the French Revolution Edmund Burke wrote: “No European can be a complete exile in any part of Europe.”

Burke was writing at a time when Europe was a battlefield of dynastic interests and violent conflicts. Yet the vision of Europe he depicted is so much more radical and expansive than anything even the most ardent pro-Europeans have come up with today. Burke thought that Europe is not a religious, political or historical construct; rather it is a civilisational sensibility, a sense of solidarity or fellow-feeling that links the cheesemonger in County Kerry with the winemaker of Bordeaux.

It is obvious that Europe has done all it can in the intervening 200 years to undermine this shared sensibility, a bone-deep connection that the 20th century nearly put to an end. Still, despite all the terror and tremors, Burke’s vision still resonates. What is perceived outside Europe as endless quarrelling is in fact an expression of a continental itch to deal with difficult issues within a shared framework.

In the 21st century, Burke’s hope has become a shared reality. This is evident in the lengthy debates over the abolition of the death penalty across Europe. San Marino abolished it in 1848, while it was practised in France until 1977. Though long and drawn out, the slow convergence on abolition proves Burke’s point: Europe is strongest when debating topics that matter most to those living or seeking refuge here.

Giving up the four founding freedoms of the EU would make each of its citizens an exile in any part of Europe.

The writer has just finished her PhD on English colonialism in 17th-century Ireland at the Trinity College Dublin School of History and Humanities. Meet all the winners of the Future of Europe Project here

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