It's almost a year since the European Union expanded to include eight of the former communist countries of central and eastern Europe. The distinctive tones of Hungarian and Czech and Polish are now routinely heard in the restaurants and offices and debating chambers of Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg. Estonians are no longer exotic, and it is as commonplace to meet citizens of Ljubljana as of Liverpool or Lisbon.

Amid all this normality, it is easy to forget quite how remarkable the recent history of Europe has been. The attention given this week to the death of Pope John-Paul II is another sharp reminder of how the abnormal has become the normal.

It is not because Karol Wotyla's lifetime spanned Nazism and Stalinism that his passing provokes reflection. The same can be said of millions of Europe's citizens.

Certainly it is not because of his obvious popularity. The grief expressed by many who shared his faith and admired his stance on morals is understandable. But elevation to worldwide celebrity status in these media-intensive times is itself no guarantee of intrinsic merit - as is demonstrated daily by the attention and adulation heaped on countless non-entities from the most obscure fringes of the entertainment industry.

The claim that can be...

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