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Expert View

Stay in EU to safeguard the fragile peace of Europe

by David Harrison | 26.06.2019

David Harrison is a lawyer, author and former diplomat specialising in EU issues.

The Brexit referendum in 2016 cast a shadow over the UK’s long-standing defence commitment to the democracies of Europe. That was never made clear three years ago. But it should be at the heart of the pro-European case for staying in the EU today.

This relationship has been in place since 1948, following the failures of appeasement in the 1930s and what Churchill called the “unnecessary” Second World War. In the post-war period, Labour ministers Clement Attlee and Ernest Bevin, seeing the new threat posed by Stalin, drew up the Western European Union treaty. This contained a UK commitment to assist another state, if subject to an armed attack, with all military and other aid and assistance. This mutual defence treaty then expired and was replaced by what is now Article 42 (7) of the Treaty on European Union.

It was never made clear in 2016 that leaving the EU meant the UK junking this defence posture which had helped keep the peace for seventy years, without a second thought, a backward glance or an alternative plan.

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There was not one word about this in the government booklet sent to households in 2016, explaining why remaining in the EU was best. No one campaigned for or against giving up the UK’s defence commitment to Europe, and other countries’ defence commitment to the UK.

All the same, buried away in the text of a treaty that no one has read, that is what Brexit means. The UK is one of only two nuclear-capable states in the EU providing a treaty commitment to assist others if they are the victim of armed aggression; and that capability is about to be reduced by 50%. Over to you, President Macron.

Of course, not everyone is ignorant about such matters. There are suspicions that Russia financed and encouraged Brexit, and the truth about what happened will no doubt emerge. Ending a security guarantee between the UK and the rest of Europe, in place since the 1940s, would be quite a coup for Moscow. Winning a victory without firing a shot is well worth a small Russian fortune.

The obvious lesson is that no one in a parliamentary democracy should ever have been allowed to roll the dice on keeping the peace, in Europe and the UK, through the device of a referendum where no one can remotely comprehend what is at stake. But a referendum is what got us here and it remains the most democratic way out. People need a further chance to think about it all, in full possession of the facts. Before they find it is too late.

Edited by Luke Lythgoe

6 Responses to “Stay in EU to safeguard the fragile peace of Europe”

  • Agreed that this was never an issue in the referendum, but surely this is because the final sentence of Art 42(7) reads:
    “Commitments and cooperation in this area shall be consistent with commitments under the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, which, for those States which are members of it, remains the foundation of their collective defence and the forum for its implementation.”

    I am as against Brexit as anyone, but we must be careful not to mount an argument against it that can easily be shot down, or we will lose all credibility among those we want to persuade..

  • Absolutely correct, David Harrison. But how many Brits have any understanding of modern European history? Judging from contestants in popular TV quiz shows very few even have any understanding of British history.
    The government has done nothing to promote European and World history in our schools. In 2010, Gove ( as Sec for Education) directed schools to teach a syllabus that was Anglocentric and told the story ‘of this great island’. GCSE syllabuses have taught Nazi Germany ad infinitum but virtually nothing about what happened post 1945.
    Very few have any knowledge of the Schumann Plan or any inkling how the continent set out to make sure that there was never such a disastrous war again. I speak as a retired head of history who taught a unit on the EEC/EU as part of the GCSE course called the Schools History Project. It was a forward looking course which the Tories consigned to the dustbin. As has been stated by people cleverer than I, the politicians in this country have killed creative thinking in our schools when it comes to history. Gove, a silly little, man was also responsible for making school assessment entirely exam centred with essay writing galore.
    The EU’s role in the peace of Europe is the most fundamental and basic reason why we should never leave it. Shame on us that so few appreciate this.

  • Absolutely correct MM Harrison and Taylor. The project for Europe since WW2 was and is now, all about creating conditions within Europe which will make war unthinkable. The success of the European project in promoting peace was recognized when the EU received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012 for its work in promoting peace and reconciliation in Europe.

    The ignorance of the average Englishman ‘ in the street ‘ and those engaged in political life who should know better, on the EU, its origins and objectives is shocking. Part of the reason for this has been the regular and consistent indoctrination against the EU by the right wing press of large parts of the English population, a flagrant example of abuse by the press of Freedom of the Press.

  • Thank you, William and David. So sad, that so few of today’s younger generation seem so ignorant of Europe’s recent past. Sadder still, that their parents and grandparents have chosen to ignore the lessons of their own past lives.

    I was born in in London during the war. I grew up in the London suburbs during the late ’40s and throughout the ’50s. Bomb sites. Food shortages. Rationing. Travel disruptions. Occasional power failures. Then, as a teenager trying to cross the channel, exchange controls etc. But also the chance to spend a term at a school in Germany. And to learn what the local community had to endure themselves: just the same as us.

    Enmity gave way to friendship, wariness to warmth, ignorance to understanding , antipathy to cooperation, border lands to common ground, nationality to community: all aspects of our shared common humanity.

    The ‘do or die’ leavers betray all the efforts made by so many to secure and maintain real peace in our life times. It is just so incredible that the ‘grumpy old git’ brigade (of whom I am one), seem so determined to wreck the prospects of today’s youngsters and to limit their horizons, by denying their right to participate as Europeans with fellow Europeans in their own European homeland.

    We need to continue living together, caring for one another, working together to maintain our shared peace. Shame on my own generation, for the damage they have chosen to inflict so carelessly on their grandchildren.

  • Well said. Andrew. You had to cope with a lot in your early years- I don’t think I would have managed it. I was born in 1948 and missed those awful years. I am lucky. My grandfathers had to endure two world wars, you might say ten lost years
    I suspect that many of the hard leavers are from my generation. Readers of the Daily Mail. They think they are protecting their money and believe the lies that the EU is telling us all what laws to pass etc.
    I am so angry about Brexit that I stand next to the newspaper rack in my local Tesco superstore. I make a survey of ten people who buy a paper. I would say 4-5 take the Mail and fit the profile of a white English pensioner.
    It is hard to take in what this government is doing. A price will be paid by our children and grandchildren. I am desperate to put a stop to it.

  • By way of comment on Richard’s response, the TEU and NATO treaties are different, and contain different defence commitments. For a full account see Prof B Heuser, “Britain and the origins and future of the European defence and security mechanisms”, RUSI Journal 162(2) pp 16 – 23. Also her excellent book Brexit In History (2019).