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Expert View

Lest we forget, the EU has helped bring peace to Europe

by David Hannay | 09.11.2018

David Hannay is a member of the House of Lords and former UK ambassador to the EU and UN.

All across Europe this week commemorative events are taking place to mark the centenary of the guns falling silent on the Western Front in November 1918, after a disastrously destructive and catastrophic war between Europe’s leading nation states.

It was called a “world war”, but its origins and causes lay in Europe. What happened outside Europe consisted largely of a series of colonial wars between parts of European powers’ empires. Twenty one years later, another even more terrible global war broke out and, although it was more truly a world war, its roots also lay in Europe – as did much of the death and destruction which flowed from it.

In those two wars Britain played a crucial and, for the most part, an honourable role. But we did not emerge unscathed any more than any of the other main participants. Unlike them, however, we were slow to draw the conclusion that, as a key part of ensuring that such disasters never happened again and as a way of binding up the wounds from those conflicts, a new structure for economic and political cooperation between Europe’s different states was needed. So we helped to found NATO, but we stood aside from the European Communities.

Now, seventy years later, we are preparing to leave the European Union.

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Does that decision make any sort of sense, either in geopolitical or economic terms? It’s not easy to find any. And our timing could hardly be worse, as the rules based international order, which we and our European allies have done so much to build, is under greater threat than at any point in recent history. Shifting power relationships and Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy are shaking the foundations on which our future prosperity and security depend. And the European states, of whom we are one, will either hang together or we will hang separately.

That, of course, is the logic on which Theresa May has based her proposal for a new security treaty with the other 27 EU countries after we have left. But that proposal is very much a second-best option. It will leave us with our ear pressed to the keyhole of the meeting room, in which the EU 27 will work out their policy responses to international events. This will not just weaken our influence in Brussels, but in Washington too.

Why should we settle for second best? We do not have to, after all. The choice is ours, and it should be made by the electorate. The question that we will need to answer is whether it is in the UK’s national interest to distance ourselves from European policy making in which we have played such a vital role in the past centuries, and from the consequences of which we have not the slightest chance of escaping.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

9 Responses to “Lest we forget, the EU has helped bring peace to Europe”

  • As an 87 year old who lived through World war 2, Security was the main reason why I voted In in 1975 and voted Remain in 2016 because I never want to see another such destructive war between European countries. Many leavers I have spoken to seem to take security for granted.

  • Well said, Brian. I am 71 and thank my lucky stars I have not had to endure a terrible world war. My grandfather’s generation went through two of them and still we haven’t learned the lesson.
    For me the parallels with the 1930s are growing stronger by the day. Trump puts ‘America first’ (cf isolationism in the 1920s and 30s) and in his recent press conference stated that he was intending to make the American military the biggest it has ever been in the country’s history. He is a racist and has shown that he is willing to antagonise nations and tear up nuclear limitation treaties. At the moment, the continent of Europe has some big problems with the rise of extreme right wing nationalism and people from Africa trying to migrate into it The latter is a problem that has been on the cards for years in terms of the north (haves) and the south (have nots), a huge imbalance in prosperity and living standards. Shutting borders and building walls is not going to solve it.
    So, in the month when we remember those who died in shocking conflicts, what is this country doing? It is trying to withdraw from the EU which is totally irresponsible. It will leave the country isolated and struggling. The UK should be within the EU where it would have some influence over these huge problems. As a middle ranking nation it has no influence on its own. Arrogant Tories think the EU still has an empire and the right to order others about. It is beyond belief. We must continue to fight for a People’s Vote. Otherwise, we could be heading for war. Never known such stupid, idiotic politicians.

  • Superb article.
    So many in Britain tend to give the credit to NATO and/or the existence of nuclear deterrence for keeping the peace in Europe since 1945. But in doing so they fail to acknowledge either of two crucial things:
    NATO was founded to address a different type of problem – and the war it has prevented is one between two competing ideologically-based global power blocks, not alliances of European nation states. It’s our coincidence that Europe would have been the main battleground for that war. In fact, NATO didn’t actually keep the peace at all – what it did do was ensure that the war was fought out on a smaller scale than it might have been, largely bu proxy, and in the territory of a number of poorer Asian and African countries.
    Secondly, they don’t acknowledge how wars start, and what they are fought about. Countries fight about economic rivalries, disputes about border territories, perceived ill-treatment of co-religionists or ethnic groups, water rights, fishing rights, navigation and trade rights, ideological principles, or to get revenge for a perceived slight, etc. All these have contributed to European wars in the last 200 years. However, it is as often as not the system of military alliances that are meant to prevent the wars, or to protect individual countries from being overwhelmed by tying other countries to help them, that makes wars grow.
    This is what made the First World War grow into a World War, rather than a nasty (and very unequal) local fight between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each called on their allies, who then called on theirs, which brought in Russia (bound to defend Serbia), Germany (bound to help Austria), France (bound to help Russia) and Britain (bound to help France).
    The same thing happened in the Second World War, although delayed by the initial process of desertion of protective alliances by Britain and France known as Appeasement.
    NATO is Just such a system of military alliances, as was the Warsaw Pact and carried the risk that if they failed to prevent war, they guaranteed that the war that followed would be huge.
    The EU is something else altogether. By tying nation states together economically and politically, it has removed the causes of war. The disputes between nation states that used to lead to wars between the countries in the EU either don’t occur at all, because they are already pre-settled through the provisions of the European treaties, or they are settled peacefully and amicably through multi-lateral negotiations.
    That there is still the potential for war in Europe is amply shown by events in the Balkans in the 1990s and more recently in Ukraine. These are (or were at the time) all outside the EU. EU countries may also still be threatened with war from outside. But the centuries-old threat of devastating wars between the large countries of Europe has gone, and its down to the EU, not NATO.

  • Superb article.
    So many in Britain tend to give the credit to NATO and/or the existence of nuclear deterrence for keeping the peace in Europe since 1945. But in doing so they fail to acknowledge either of two crucial things:
    NATO was founded to address a different type of problem – and the war it has prevented is one between two competing ideologically-based global power blocks, not alliances of European nation states. It’s pure coincidence that Europe would have been the main battleground for that war. In fact, NATO didn’t actually keep the peace at all – what it did do was ensure that the war was fought out on a smaller scale than it might have been, largely by proxy, and in the territory of a number of poorer Asian and African countries.
    Secondly, they don’t acknowledge how wars start, and what they are fought about. Countries fight about economic rivalries, disputes about border territories, perceived ill-treatment of co-religionists or ethnic groups, water rights, fishing rights, navigation and trade rights, ideological principles, or to get revenge for a perceived slight, etc. All these have contributed to European wars in the last 200 years. However, it is as often as not the system of military alliances that are meant to prevent the wars, or to protect individual countries from being overwhelmed by tying other countries to help them, that makes wars grow.
    This is what made the First World War grow into a World War, rather than a nasty (and very unequal) local fight between Serbia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Each called on their allies, who then called on theirs, which brought in Russia (bound to defend Serbia), Germany (bound to help Austria), France (bound to help Russia) and Britain (bound to help France).
    The same thing happened in the Second World War, although delayed by the initial process of desertion of protective alliances by Britain and France known as Appeasement.
    NATO is Just such a system of military alliances, as was the Warsaw Pact and carried the risk that if they failed to prevent war, they guaranteed that the war that followed would be huge.
    The EU is something else altogether. By tying nation states together economically and politically, it has removed the causes of war. The disputes between nation states that used to lead to wars between the countries in the EU either don’t occur at all, because they are already pre-settled through the provisions of the European treaties, or they are settled peacefully and amicably through multi-lateral negotiations.
    That there is still the potential for war in Europe is amply shown by events in the Balkans in the 1990s and more recently in Ukraine. These are (or were at the time) all outside the EU. EU countries may also still be threatened with war from outside. But the centuries-old threat of devastating wars between the large countries of Europe has gone, and its down to the EU, not NATO.

  • As someone wrote in the Sunday Times today, “remembering is good, learning is better”.
    How much have we as a society learned about the lessons of European history?

  • Brilliant comments above and I agree with all of them!

    I just also wanted to give this as a reason for canceling Brexit and calling for the Referendum to be null and void (although it has nothing to do with the title of the article).

    There are hidden reason for Brexit coming from the alt right who have always known how to manipulate voters. Even the Electoral Commission has finally had to agree that Mr Sanni is absolutely right and truthful in everything he has said. Shame on the Media , especially the BBC for not talking about the subject and giving air time to his enemy. Most people don’t even know about him. Our Democracy really is at stake:-

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/nov/11/shahmir-sanni-brexit-taxpayers-alliance-fight-for-truth

  • Absolutely agree with all of the above. As Jean Monet pointed out when countries agree on common objectives and the means to attain them,this transforms their mutual relationship. The striking examples are the relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland and between France and Germany.
    Of course, NATO was a defensive alliance against external agression. The EUropean project’s objective culminating in the EU was to create the conditions for a lasting peace within Europe. This was recognised by the Nobel Committee in 2012 with the reward of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU.