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What have the Romans, sorry the EU, done for us?

by Alan Wheatley | 05.04.2016

Monty Python got the debate on Brexit right in Life of Brian. Reg, the Judean rebel leader played by John Cleese, becomes exasperated when his comrades unexpectedly reflect on the benefits of Roman rule.

“All right, but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?” he asks.

Back comes the answer: “Brought Peace.”

For Rome, read the European Union. Yes, the EU has plenty of faults, but we have come to take its benefits for granted. We do so at our peril.

The debate over whether or not the UK should remain in the EU is turning largely on economic arguments. Would Brexit hurt growth? What would be the net impact on the budget? Is the free movement of people putting excessive financial strain on the NHS and public services?

Important though they are, these are second-order questions. They overlook the fundamental reason why the European Economic Community was set up in the first place: to bind the economies of France and Germany together so closely that another war between the two, after three in 70 years, would be impossible. And so it has proved.

To be clear, Brexit would not sow the seeds of a new conflict. But a UK vote to leave could trigger demands from other member states that gradually cause the EU to unravel like a skein of wool. After all, the Schengen passport-free travel area is already under severe strain and the euro zone crisis is merely in abeyance. Strife risks replacing the political and economic stability in that we now regard as a given.

This makes the UK’s departure a devastating geopolitical prospect that would spell the end of the EU and reverberate worldwide, according to Xavier Rolet, the head of the London Stock Exchange. Whipped up by the refugee crisis, nationalism and xenophobia are already rumbling too loudly for comfort in some corners of the continent.

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Brexiteers with short memories also forget the critical role the EU played in embedding democracy and human rights in southern Europe after the collapse of right-wing dictatorships in Spain, Portugal and Greece. Similarly, the EU – and in particular Margaret Thatcher – deserve credit for entrenching free elections, the rule of law and largely open markets in Eastern Europe and the Baltic states after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Europe’s hinterland is immeasurably more secure now that the Soviet Union’s former satellites look to Brussels instead of Moscow, and to NATO instead of the Warsaw Pact.

True, the EU was unable to prevent the Balkan wars of the 1990s. But since then Croatia and Slovenia have become EU members and other states carved out of former Yugoslavia are queuing up to join, vastly reducing the chances of a new conflagration.

So I will vote on June 23 to stay in the EU not primarily because I think it’s in the UK’s economic interest; or that membership give us more influence on global issues; or because I value the automatic right of British citizens to live and work in the rest of the EU; or because of the opportunities that EU programmes such as the Erasmus student exchange scheme give young people today. I will vote to remain because the crumbling of the EU could upset the peace and stability that my generation, like Reg’s rebels in Life of Brian, complacently takes for granted.

As former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl has constantly reminded those who, unlike him, were born after World War Two, Europe remains a question of war and peace: “The evil spirits of the past have by no means been banished, they can always return.”

This piece is being simultaneously published on the Telegraph

Edited by Hugo Dixon

3 Responses to “What have the Romans, sorry the EU, done for us?”

  • Peace? I think it much more likely that the thousands of Soviet troops and weapons in Eastern Europe was the real driver for peace between France and Germany, basically they were both scared of the Russian bear so much that they had to work together or find Soviet soldiers in their cities. We should of course remember that much more than half prewar Germany was under Soviet control or had been cleared of its Germans and given to Poland and other countries, starting a war with France would have been impossible.

    In many ways it could be argued that NATO was more than the EU for binding Germany and France together.

  • “Brexiteers with short memories also forget the critical role the EU played in embedding democracy and human rights in southern Europe .” Brexiteers are also aware that dictatorship is returning to Poland and Hungary; that ultimately no sanctions can be applied without unanimity; and that Hungary has pledged to veto such action against Poland.

  • I am surprised that a Bremainer would say that: “a UK vote to leave could trigger demands from other member states that gradually cause the EU to unravel like a skein of wool.” And I am further surprised that Martin Schulz said as quoted in the Daily Express on 12th April this year that : “If the British leave the EU, there will be demands for further escape referendums.” Apparently, after the UK economy collapses and we are left only with North Korea as a trading partner or source of FDA other states will say: “We want to go that way too, and escape from the international organisation which has kept the peace in Europe since it was formed”. Would not Brexit prevent all other exits once our sorry fate was observed?