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East German citizens climb the Berlin wall at the Brandenburg Gate as they celebrate the opening of the East German border on Nov. 10, 1989.Reuters

In the early 1970s, when I lived in Rome as a kid, well more than half of Europe lived under dictatorships. There were the Soviet bloc countries in the East, and – don’t forget – Greece, Spain and Portugal in the West.

In 1980, when I returned to Europe as a young language student in Paris, the continent was making halting progress toward liberal democracy. The dictatorships in the West had collapsed. In the same year, the Solidarity movement began at the Gdansk shipyard in Poland.

Freedom was on the march, and, a decade later, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union turned it into a stampede. I remember meeting veterans of the Second World War, most of them by then well into their 60s, who marvelled at the changes under way, as if all the principles for which they had fought were finally coming true.

Today, the European Union, with 27 member states, represents the greatest cluster of democracies on the planet. The youngest generations of Europeans have known nothing but a free and peaceful EU, whereas their grandparents and great-grandparents endured war, misery, ethnic cleansing, hunger and crushing poverty throughout the continent for years.

Timothy Garton Ash, a British historian, academic and journalist, is a bit older than me and had a front-row seat to many of the crucial events that created today’s Europe, from the fall of the Berlin Wall and the launch of the euro to Brexit and the eastern expansion of NATO. His latest book, Homelands: A Personal History of Europe, is a love letter to the European project. But his deep affection for the EU is far from unconditional, as the project, after a soaring debut, is cracking, making him something of a jilted lover.

Homelands is the winner of this year’s Lionel Gelber Prize, awarded by the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. I was on the team of jurors led by the school’s founding director, Janice Stein; our job was to select the best new book on global affairs written in English. Typically, the winning book offers a fresh or compelling look at the forces that are shaping – and sometimes rocking – modern society.

Prof. Garton Ash was presented the award Thursday at the Munk School. His book does not really break new ground. Its strength is tracing the history of postwar Europe by way of memoir, mixing vivid first-hand accounts of key events with historical insight and a journalist’s eye for detail, mood and interpretation. The book romps along, with mercifully short chapters that capture the moment and put it into context in a popular, non-technical way. He is a superb storyteller.

As a reporter and columnist who has lived in Europe since 2007, I found his final 10 chapters, collectively called Faltering, 2008-2022, the most compelling, since I had written about many of the events they cover myself.

A year after I opened the Rome bureau of The Globe and Mail, the global financial crisis and the crippling recessions that came with it nearly ripped the EU apart, with Greece coming close to ditching the euro and reprinting the clapped-out old drachma. Then came the terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, the 2015 refugee crisis and subsequent rise of extreme-right, anti-migrant parties such as Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), the emergence of illiberal democracies in a few eastern EU countries, the COVID-19 pandemic and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe’s biggest land war since 1945. And there was Brexit, which saw the exodus of Britain from the EU, the first member state to call it quits.

The EU may not be disintegrating, but Prof. Garton Ash asks: How many more blows on the scale of Brexit can it take?

His chapter on Viktor Orban’s Hungary seems to fill the author with despair, for it shows that the EU’s guiding principles – democracy, freedom, the rule of law, respect for minority rights, open markets – are unenforceable within a member state. He no longer considers Hungary a democracy now that Mr. Orban’s “anti-liberal, socially conservative, pro-natalist, professedly Christian and ethno-nationalist” vision has taken hold. Add pro-Russian, for he is the EU leader closest to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Yet Mr. Orban, in effect, is being rewarded for crushing the EU’s principles. Billions of euros of EU funds continue to prop up his country, buying infrastructure and patronage and, reportedly, enriching the lifestyles of his family and friends. If Hungary can get away with this behaviour, why not other EU strongmen? In fact, Poland came close to following the Orbán playbook in the past decade or so but may swing back onto the liberal track under Donald Tusk, the Europhile former president of the European Council who was elected Prime Minister last year.

Has Prof. Garton Ash lost hope in the European project? No, not in the slightest. But he is worried.

The power of the book lies in convincing readers, especially young readers, not to take the idea and the ideals of Europe for granted, for they would have a lot to lose – namely freedom – were the project to fail. The war in Ukraine, where a Russian dictator is bent on erasing a Western-leaning democracy, helps drive that message home. Near the end of Homelands, Prof. Garton Ash says “adapting Churchill’s famous remark about democracy, we might say that this is the worst possible Europe, apart from all the other Europes that have been tried from time to time.” Freedom, he concludes, is not a process; it’s a struggle.

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