- The nurturing of peace in Europe
A few mornings ago, when I was about to start writing this piece about the European Union’s success in bolstering peace, I woke up to learn that a trigger-happy Trump had lobbed 59 cruise missiles into a Syrian airbase. Not many minutes later, the BBC told us that former conservative party leader, Michael Howard, had called on Mrs May to be prepared to go to war with Spain to defend Britain’s rule in Gibraltar. Trump has now ordered American warships to sail near North Korea and Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office told Spain to take its corvette out of Gibraltar’s waters.
Both incidents are symptomatic of an escalation in “hard” nationalism on each side of the Atlantic. Presumably Trump was not remotely concerned about Syrian babies killed by chemical weapons but wanted to show his guest, the Chinese premier, that “his” America wouldn’t hesitate to take unilateral military action against North Korea if they went on testing missiles and nuclear weapons. Howard’s bellicose threats about Gibraltar ring equally hollow because he championed the English “leave” vote that left Gibraltarians (96% of whom voted to “remain” in the EU) marooned by the Prime Minister’s pursuit of a “hard Brexit.
Sadly, however, such instances of sabre-rattling and warmongering can gain their own momentum and become the sparks that ignite wars.
It is because such extreme nationalist tendencies have been tamed in the wake of the two horrific global wars started by European nations in the 20th century that no major conflict has engulfed us since I was born 74 years ago. But it this hardening of nationalism, so evident in many countries of Europe including Britain, that really scares my wife and me. Our greatest hope is that our children and grand-children will never have to go to war: we think that most people share our hope but don’t see the connection between the “hardening” that is now happening and possible future conflict as vividly as we do.
Like many Europeans, most British people have come to take peace for granted. If they ever give a thought to the deaths of millions of our parents’ generation in wars, the horrors of concentration camps and mass exterminations, food rationing or compulsory military service, they see them as things of the past. We all enjoy the huge dividends of peace – the general well-being, greater longevity and relative prosperity in which we live – without asking ourselves how the longest period without major conflicts in Europe since Roman days has been sustained.
“To preserve and strengthen peace and liberty” was the fundamental goal of the Treaty of Rome that created the European Economic Community 60 years ago. The idea was that peace would be nurtured by linking democracy with growing prosperity, especially by investing in the development of the poorest regions of member countries. It would be deepened as trust and mutual respect grew amongst the people from different countries who would come together at all levels under the aegis of the Community to design and implement solutions to their many common problems. Programmes like Erasmus would cement contacts between young people from across Europe.
It may surprise readers that Boris Johnson (who is now doing his best to wreck the EU) admired his mentor, Churchill, for encouraging the creation of the common market as a means of reinforcing peace in Europe. Just two years ago, Boris wrote that it was Churchill’s “idea to bring these countries together, to bind them so indissolubly that they could never go to war again – and who can deny that the idea has been a spectacular success?” Boris may now claim to be driven by the “will of the people”, but surely what we are seeing is self-contradiction fueled by his blatant personal ambitions.
The entry of Ireland and Britain into the European Union in 1973 opened the way for a quiet healing process to move steadily forward within Ireland, leading eventually to an end of the “troubles” with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Daniel Mulhall, Irish Ambassador to the UK argues that “the EU’s record with regard to Ireland and the UK represents a microcosm of the Union’s wider achievements in resolving age-old, continental rivalries during the past six decades”.
The EU’s role in nurturing peace has grown over the years and become more purposeful, orchestrated by its Conflict Prevention, Peace-building and Mediation Division. This unit now contributes to a more stable global environment through its work on conflict prevention in many EU countries as well as beyond its borders. This was recognized in the award of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the EU which “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”.
The other main instrument supporting peace in Europe is the European Court of Justice (ECJ). Its role is “ensuring EU law is interpreted and applied in the same way in every EU country, ensuring countries abide by EU law”. By passing judgement on disputes it defuses potential conflicts.
Strangely, before Cameron called for the June 2016 referendum, Britain’s relationship with the EU was not a matter of great concern to most voters nor was the country in dispute with the EU on any major issue. The “leave” campaign, however, destroyed public confidence in the Union and its institutions, partly through blaming them for many of Britain’s home-made governance failures. Now the “hard” Brexit process is stoking tensions in ways that are endangering peace both in UK and across Europe.
In the UK, the vote split families and communities, with the old and the young taking different sides; and xenophobia and related hate crimes have risen sharply. Worryingly, the same Brexiteers who called for Britain to reclaim its sovereignty from Brussels, pushed the Prime Minister to go to court twice to challenge the authority of Parliament to oversee Britain’s negotiations with the EU. When over-ruled by the Supreme Court, she belittled the role of MPs by muzzling opposition within her own party through declaring a 3-line whip which stopped many MPs from representing their constituents in their voting behaviour. By being haughtily dismissive of the concerns of the Scots and Northern Irish – the majority of whom voted to remain in the EU – she is raising the risk that the UK could break up and that there will be a resurgence of conflict in Ireland.
Aggressive pro-Brexit rhetoric is already undermining the basis for mutual trust between the UK and the other 27 EU members, and this could get worse, given the determination of some of the proponents of a hard Brexit to cause maximum damage to the EU. But, more importantly, Britain’s departure from the EU Council of Ministers, the ECJ, the Single Market and many other decision-making bodies will leave the country outside the consultative and dispute settlement processes that have done so much for decades to contribute to peace in the region and to prevent misunderstandings from getting out of hand.
Theresa May must have learnt over the past few months that she has been conned by the same bunch of opportunists who lied to voters in the referendum campaign. She rashly gave them the power to steer Britain towards a different future but they have failed to prove that their ideas will serve the long-term interest of the majority of British people. She has seen with her own eyes that the Trans-Atlantic connection has become unreliable with Trump as US President; that the options for opening new markets in distant lands are paltry; that the unity of the Kingdom is truly threatened by a hard Brexit, and – if she is not blind – that Britain’s actions are already untying the bonds that are the best guarantee of long-term peace to which we all aspire.
Today the Prime Minister has called for a general election, perhaps because she sees that she has been led up a dead-end road.. Hopefully, this June voters, now that they know more of the negative impacts of Brexit, will send her a strong signal that, after all, they prefer to remain in the European Union, assure the integrity of the United Kingdom and sustain peace in the region.
Perhaps we are one step closer to the end of a bad, divisive year-long dream!