Happy 60th Birthday, European Union!

On March 25, 1957, leaders of six nations – Belgium, the Federal Republic of Germany, France, Italy, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands – met in Rome and signed two treaties that gave birth to the European Economic Community (EEC) and the European Atomic Energy Community. Six years earlier, in 1951, the same six nations had established, as a first step towards greater interdependence, the European Coal and Steel Community.

In 1993, the EEC became part of what is today known as the European Union (EU), and, since Rome, its membership has more than quadrupled.

On this 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, I celebrate with Europe. To imagine how far the continent has traveled from the devastation wrought by the Second World War – and the conflicts that preceded it – is to be reminded of the limitless possibilities of history.

Needless to say, this previously unforeseeable progress did not simply happen. It emerged from the vision of those who chose to look beyond the narrow confines of the moment into the distant horizon, accompanied by an iron will to write a new chapter in Europe’s history, notwithstanding the endless hurdles and roadblocks along the way.

And it was facilitated by a pragmatic approach that stressed gradualism, building the new European architecture brick by brick.

An incalculable debt of gratitude is owed to those who laid the groundwork for what surely is the most ambitious and successful peace project in modern history.

Among them was Winston Churchill who, in his legendary Zurich speech of 1946, spoke of the need to “recreate the European family” and allow it to “dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom.” “The first step,” he proposed, “must be a partnership between France and Germany.” His longer-term objective was a “United States of Europe.”

A few years later, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, inspired by his remarkable deputy, Jean Monnet, declared: “The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany. Any action taken must in the first place concern these two countries.”

Perhaps for younger generations this 60th anniversary evokes little more than a yawn or a sigh. What’s the big deal, they might ask?

The answer, pure and simple, is that it is a very big deal.

A continent once ravaged by one war after another, and whose soil has been soaked with the blood of millions – indeed, tens, if not hundreds, of millions – killed because of racial theories, religious disputes, territorial claims, leaders’ megalomania, economic greed, and more, no longer loses sleep fearing a new outbreak of cross-border violence. The very idea of a war between France and Germany, or any other combination of EU members, today is unthinkable.

These are the EU’s greatest achievements – peace, harmony, and coexistence among its members, based on the common foundation of a commitment to democratic values, the rule of law, and respect for human dignity, not to mention the rapid economic development of many EU states that came as a direct result of membership.

I still pinch myself when crossing the border between France and Germany and encounter no guards checking passports; or when seeing a history textbook that is the product of a joint French-German commission; or when observing the three Baltic states as full-fledged EU members, and recalling that less than 30 years ago they were still Soviet-occupied territories dreaming of freedom; or when remembering the fascist regimes in Greece, Portugal, and Spain in the early 1970s, and now witnessing their inclusion in the EU as fully democratic societies.

As a dedicated transatlanticist and Europhile, and as the husband and father of four EU citizens, I know full well that all is not perfect in today’s Europe.

Heaven knows, Europe has no shortage of challenges, from the three “i’s” – immigration, integration, and identity – to economic stagnation in Greece, a fragile banking system in Italy, and youth unemployment over 50 percent in some countries; from disenchantment with the centralization of power in a seemingly detached Brussels, to internal security threats, as evidenced of late in Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, and the U.K.; from the strong winds of populism and extremism, to the earthquake of the Brexit vote last June; and from intense debates over the degree of national sovereignty versus post-sovereignty, to Russian meddling with the aim of dividing and undermining European unity.

As the EU navigates these minefields, considers course corrections, and, more broadly, charts its future path, the 60th anniversary provides an opportunity to take stock of just how far Europe has come since the end of World War II, and to remind Europe’s citizens, and especially younger generations, that the EU is about far more than the standardization of light bulbs or food policies.

There will be ample time for more EU introspection and debate, but, if only for a few days, that should give way to celebration and self-congratulation.

Europe, thanks to a handful of visionary leaders, has shown itself and the world what can be accomplished with the audacity to dream and the will to succeed. In fact, maybe the chaotic Middle East will one day learn some of the same lessons.

Happy 60th birthday, European Union, from across the Atlantic!