It is not only the insular British, of course, who find such questions a puzzle. Ask the Bretons why they feel an affinity with the Serbo-Croats which somehow does not extend to the Azerbaijanis or the Mexican Indians. Or attempt to explore with a central European Jew the precise nature of the ties that he or she feels with a culture which down the centuries has been responsible for so much persecution and pain.
For many years Frederick Delouche felt a particular need to unravel such mysteries. With a French father, a Norwegian mother, and a mainly English education, he found himself perpetually treated as an object of faintly mocking derision: a Frog at school, an anglo-Saxon "Milor" on holiday in France, and some sort of raping and pillaging Viking everywhere. But he himself just felt European, and his sense of identity only deepened as he grew up and travelled. He married an Englishwoman brought up in Uganda, worked in Buenos Aires, New York, Ankara and Beirut, and every time that he came "home" grew more frustrated by the narrowness of people's horizons.
Late in life he embarked on a project. With a team of eminent academics, from Germany, France, Spain, Italy and Britain, an overall editor in the shape of Jean-Baptiste Duroselle, former professor of contemporary history at the Sorbonne, and the backing of a powerful group of international publishers, he attempted the task of assembling, in one substantial but accessible volume, a distillation of all the elements - chronological, geographical, ethnographic, cultural, philosophical, spiritual - which have blended down the centuries to create the state of "Europeanness".
The resulting book, in eight different language versions, has now appeared in Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Portugal, The Netherlands and Denmark. It pulls together, with impressive clarity, the tangled story that started at Chilhac, in the Auvergne, where a group of five handworked pebbles demonstrates that human habitation in Europe dates back at least 1,800,000 years. As it sweeps on, through Greece and Rome, dark age and renaissance, world empire and industrial revolution, towards this present century of war and destruction, it succeeds in suggesting that, against all the odds, there may still be some basis for the political and economic union now intensively, if fractiously, under discussion.
It would probably be rash, however, to set one's hopes too high. The British version of the enterprise came out well before Christmas under the title "Europe: A History of its Peoples" (Viking Penguin, £25.00). But the testimony from the high street is mixed, to put it mildly. I finally ran a copy to earth, with some difficulty, at Penguin's own bookshop in Covent Garden, and telephone enquiries to a selection of London's larger booksellers indicated that two out of three had at least one copy on their shelves. But The Economist Bookshop, near the London School of Economics, which seemed the most likely to be interested in such a topic, failed, after an extensive search of its microfiche catalogue, to find any trace of it. Which seems to bring us right back to the question we started with: is Europe actually marketable?
(Peter Wilsher is assistant editor of the Sunday Express.)