First, recall that the German city of Aachen likes to think itself as the starting point of modern Europe as a political and cultural entity. It was the home city of Charles the Great or Charlemagne, who by the time of his death in 814 had forged a powerful empire in the heart of the continent. Apart from lending his name to a colleague's splendid column in The Economist, Charlemagne managed, so his admirers say, to invigorate the European spirit by infusing Christendom with a reviving dose of classical Roman culture. Every year since 1950 the burgers of Aachen have honoured an outstanding contributor to the modern cause of European unity. (Eastern Christians, by the way, don't quite follow that argument; they blame Charlemagne for corrupting the papacy by blackmailing the pope into crowning him emperor, and for setting in motion Christianity's east-west schism.)
All the founding figures of the European Economic Community, later the European Union, received their due, as did Winston Churchill. Hitherto the only ones honoured from outside Europe have been Atlanticist Americans: secretaries of state George Marshall (author of the post-war recovery plan) and Henry Kissinger (credited with asking rhetorically, what Europe's telephone number was); and Bill Clinton, who as president oversaw NATO expansion and imposed pax Americana on the Balkans.
In 2016, though, the European-unifier-of-the-year, and recipient of the Charlemagne prize, will be Pope Francis. A paradoxical selection, in some ways. He is the first non-European pope in 1,300 years. He views the world from the perspective of the global South. A product of Peronist Argentina, he empathises easily with people in the developing world who view the capitalist North, including prosperous Europe, as a zone of exploiters, money-lenders and polluters, bent on growing rich at the southerners' expense. Above all, he presides over a faith whose locus, as a colleague has written, is moving southwards as Christianity in various forms flourishes in the south and vanishes from its European heartland.
But the selectors are adamant that Pope Francis, more than anybody else, has breathed new life into the construction of Europe at a time when that effort was sagging. They cite his oft-stated belief that Europe must be based on ideals, not economic calculation: above all the ideal of the sanctity of human life. For example, the pontiff reminded the European Parliament about a year ago that "at the heart of the (European) project was confidence in man, not so much [in man] as a citizen or an economic agent but in men and women as persons endowed with transcendent dignity."
As you might expect, the citation hails the pontiff's generous stance towards the migrants pouring into Europe, and his famous outburst, soon after taking office, about the migrants crossing the Mediterranean and in some cases drowning. "Who has wept for the deaths of these brothers and sisters? The globalisation of indifference has taken from us the capacity to weep."
The pope, then, is being commended for his view that Europe can fulfil its own vocation, and perhaps atone for past sins, by being hugely generous to non-Europeans. There is much to be said for this. In its self-satisfied moments, Euro-rhetoric sometimes presents the old continent as a uniquely virtuous haven of law-abiding, peace-loving, rights-respecting folk who must avoid being tainted by too much contact with outsiders, or what a famous English poet of imperialism, Rudyard Kipling, called "lesser breeds without the Law". A pope who can see things through the spectacles of a world colonised by Europe can be a helpful antidote to such smugness.
But of course, Europe needs more than humility or self-abasement if it is to absorb the migrants who are now sailing or trudging towards its heart. It needs strong, job-creating economies. That might be a good topic for the pope's acceptance speech in a few months' time.