Things in Europe do not seem to be going so well these days. The Eurozone crisis is a recent memory. European politicians bicker over bailouts or make reckless threats. Unemployment is high. The Swiss are voting out the immigrants and in many European countries right-wing parties are on the rise.

But the European model remains appealing. So appealing, in fact, that people in Ukraine are willing to risk their lives for it. Demonstrators in Kiev, picking a moment when the world’s eyes are on the region, have marched on their government, resulting in harrowing scenes of violence.

Admittedly, there are many different factions involved in the protests now. But the starting point, about three months ago, was the Ukrainian government’s debate over a trade agreement with the EU. And the protests escalated dramatically when the government instead accepted a deal with Russia.

Make no mistake: the violence is not just about trade agreements. Or rather, much of it is, but these are no ordinary trade agreements. As the intensity of the protesters’ commitment suggests, this is one of the most important struggles taking place in the world today.

It is, in the phrase promoted by the European Union and taken up by numerous Ukrainian politicians, a “civilizational choice”. The trade agreement Ukraine signs will shape the country’s destiny.

To see why this is so, take a look at the below graph. This shows the incomes of countries joining the EU compared to one of the EU’s richest members (Denmark). What is striking is that the rising lines of incomes in Eastern Europe are almost parallel – despite great differences in political systems, policy choices, initial income levels, and language and culture, incomes in each country rise at roughly the same rate.

EU Joiners vs Denmark

There is a good reason for this. The EU membership process all but guarantees income convergence. The process requires intensive improvements in law and governance by the applicant country. The prospect of access to European markets is such a tremendous lure that the usual vested interests tend to be swept aside in a wave of reform backed by large businesses and civil society.

Described in these terms, it sounds prosaic. But the transformation that the EU membership process has brought to, for instance, Poland in the past 20 years is breathtaking. When I first visited in 1991, parts of Poland seemed to belong in the “third world”. By 2011, by contrast, even small, industrial towns like Krapkowice had become, well, European, with European quality of infrastructure (admittedly with a legacy of very bad municipal planning) and rule of law.

And that is, in part, what many of Ukraine’s protesters are battling for: a trade agreement, yes, but one that, over time, ushers in sound democracy, the protection of human rights, control of corruption, and economic prosperity (although many Europeans who, frankly, have become accustomed to having it good, probably do not feel prosperous today).

The United States has been praised by some commentators as the world’s “first universal nation”, with a model that appeals to people worldwide, regardless of race or religion. The US is known, for better or worse, for exporting its values of democracy and free enterprise.

But I wonder if Europe might better deserve this kind of praise. US trade agreements, including NAFTA, have singularly failed to transform their signatories (in this case, Mexico). It is impossible to imagine the citizens of any Central American country rioting to force their government to join a trade agreement with the US.

Meanwhile, the European Union, for all its failings, and with its rather bureaucratic EU accession process, has quietly transformed half a continent into an oasis of peace, good governance, and prosperity.

The Eurozone crisis and its associated recession has shaken European confidence. But there are clearly some who still believe in the European project.

Most notably, in Ukraine.