, BERLIN, Sept 20 – Europe is celebrating 20 years since people power threw off communism’s shackles, ended decades of Cold War division and paved the way for the spread of democracy and wealth.
But looking ahead, the continent cannot afford to be complacent, with huge challenges to overcome if it is to remain prosperous, harmonious and achieve its aim of being a force for good in the world, analysts warn.
The climax of the festivities is on November 9, the date when weeks of snowballing public pressure not only in East Germany but across Eastern Europe culminated in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel — assuming the former East German wins, as expected, re-election on September 27 — will host leaders past and present including the former Soviet Union’s last head of state Mikhail Gorbachev.
The Berlin Wall was the front line in the Cold War between two nuclear-armed superpowers, the United States and the USSR, a barrier symbolising over 40 years a troubled continent riven in two.
Its collapse was for many the most memorable event as communism withered across Eastern Europe. Soon the Soviet Union was a thing of the past, and the Cold War over. Author Francis Fukuyama called it "the end of history."
"We definitely have something to celebrate," Katinka Barysch from the Centre for European Reform in London told AFP. "We had millions of people living behind barbed wire fences and the Wall and no freedom to travel or much else."
The 20 years that followed have seen rapid and far-reaching European integration, with the European Union expanding eastwards to bring many of the countries that used to be behind the Iron Curtain into its fold.
Today, the EU comprises almost half a billion people in 27 democratic countries, with 16 sharing a common currency, the euro. Commerce has boomed and for the vast majority of people, living standards have risen.
A conflict in Europe on the scale of the 20th century’s two world wars is now unthinkable.
But the past two decades saw wars tearing apart the former Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. Tension in Northern Ireland brought bloodshed, and Basque bombs have killed and maimed in Spain.
Europe has also been hit by Islamic extremism, as witnessed in the Madrid and London bombings of 2004 and 2005.
Outside Europe, the continent’s soldiers have fought and died in Iraq and in Afghanistan, and have been part of peacekeeping operations all over the world.
Future prosperity is also far from guaranteed.
Even before the current recession, Europe’s economy was sluggish at best, and the downturn has hit hard, not only in the east in Latvia and Hungary but also in powerhouse Germany and former star performers Ireland and Spain.
Europe’s relations with the rest of the world have also caused internal tensions, as witnessed between newer and older EU members over the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, and over ties with a newly resurgent and gas-rich Russia.
Further tensions with Moscow have come from the eastwards expansion of the NATO military alliance, from frequent interruptions of Russian gas supplies and from Russia’s short war with Georgia in August 2008.
But for Marco Incerti from the Centre for European Policy Studies in Brussels, one of the biggest problems is how eastwards expansion has made decision-making in the EU cumbersome.
This is something that the Lisbon Treaty, a watered-down version of the European Constitution rejected by Dutch and French voters in 2005, is meant to fix but which has still not been ratified by all members.
"It sounds boring," Incerti told AFP. "But because the EU is not able to swiftly and effectively take decisions, it is not always responding to challenges in a fast enough way, which means that the citizens don’t see it delivering, which means that they are unhappy."
In the coming decades, Europe is bound to lose some power and influence on the global stage to emerging giants like China, "but how much depends upon the extent to which (the EU) manages to get its act together," Incerti said.
Barysch agreed: "We will have to run ever faster just to stand still. We are not an island, we are in the globalised economy … It will be necessary for Europe to keep changing just to maintain the standard of living that we have today."