This article argues that the desire to promote a ‘European way of life’ constitutes a defining feature of contemporary European integration. What might be misinterpreted as an inward turn is in fact part of the temptation for the EU to become a ‘civilizational state’, one promoting a distinct identity against rival value systems. The analysis highlights the significance of the EU’s ideological shift towards a civilizational narrative and explores the domestic and international factors pushing Brussels in this direction. The article also considers the practical consequences of the EU’s attempt to act as a civilizational state in its foreign relations. Here the argument proceeds on the understanding that a civilization is not an essence but a set of practices associated with political decision-making, notably over boundaries. The EU response to Russian and Chinese attempts to extend their influence in Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic is examined as a case study of how more assertive boundary-making, to solidify the EU’s civilizational claims, is likely to fuel geopolitical competition. Ultimately, the universal idea of Europe as a template for global governance was far less threatening for its systemic challengers. Hence the EU’s pandemic response is a sign of heightened civilizational rivalry.