“When Churchill looked at what was unfolding in Europe in the 1950s, he didn’t have any particular feeling of rancour, or regret, or exclusion. On the contrary, he looked at the developing plans for a common market with a paternal pride. It was his idea to bring these countries together, to bind them so indissolubly that they would never go to war again — and who can deny, today, that this idea has been a spectacular success?”
The author of this eloquent paragraph, penned in 2014, is Boris Johnson. How strange that he spent most of 2016 contradicting his own verdict by doing his utmost to undermine British support for the European Union!
It is enormously worrying that anyone – especially someone who has been so prominent in shaping public views in Britain about the European Union – has the gall to perform such a somersault, but it is not the first time that he has contradicted himself and probably not the last.
In 2012, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union for its role in the “advancement of peace and reconciliation. democracy and human rights”. The decision was welcomed by all European leaders, but Boris branded it as an act of “madness”, noting that “the EU’s part in creating peace in Europe has long been exaggerated, and I am afraid its signature policy is now in danger of producing the exact opposite”.
So, within just four years, he performed a double somersault on the EU’s contribution to peace. Perhaps he was inspired by his mentor, Winston Churchill, who was adept at changing sides when he saw this to be to his advantage!
Our purpose is not to dwell on Boris Johnson’s acrobatic skills, but to stress on how vital it is to prolong Europe’s 70 years of peace, to consider how the EU contributes to conflict reduction and to assess current threats to peace.
The longer we have peace, the more we seem to take it for granted. I still find it horrific that my father had to fight in two world wars before he was fifty. He fought in the trenches of the Somme when just 18 years old. He was fighting again – and wounded – in Europe just over 20 years later after Britain, under Churchill’s leadership, entered the second world war to combat the rise of fascism in Germany and in Europe more generally.
Like so many others of his age, my father seldom talked about his wartime experiences, for they were bound to revive painful memories. My wife, however, still vividly recalls her mother’s grieving when news came that her husband – my wife’s father – had died when his ship was sunk by a mine just after the formal end of the World War ll. I have witnessed the immediate aftermath of wars in Bangladesh, between Iran and Iraq, in Angola and in Sierra Leone, and this has helped me realise how lucky I have been to have passed most of my 74 years in peace. It is natural that our greatest wish is that our children and grandchild should never suffer the horrors of war that blighted our parents’ lives and have caused so much death and destruction elsewhere in the world. We see the European Union, in spite of its many imperfections, as the best guarantor of our offspring’s safety.
If Britain walks away from the EU, it undoubtedly increases the risks of a return to war in Europe. I hope that I am wrong about this, but I see two emerging threats to peace. The first comes from the weakening and possible collapse of the institutions of the European Union. The second stems from the rapid emergence of neo-fascist movements in several leading European countries, including in England.
The EU has lots of faults, many of which have rightly been aired in the referendum process. Surprisingly little, however. has been said about its success in bringing together 28 nations, many formerly at war with each other and some recently freed from dictatorship and communism. The very existence of the EU is an extraordinary achievement that bridges the deep divisions of ethnicity, history, culture, tradition, religion and language that have so often sparked conflicts in the past. Founded on the basis of common values, it has created and is constantly updating a framework of agreed behaviours and standards, whether these relate to human rights, trade, security, access to health services, the protection of natural resources, energy use, climate change and so on. It has also contributed enormously to expanding collaborative research to find solutions to problems that transcend national borders, and it has fostered student exchanges that add to a sense of belonging to Europe amongst the young.
Many of these activities and related arbitration procedures prevent and help to resolve potential disputes and they ease inter-country cooperation in so many fields of activity. Importantly, as the processes of globalization move forward, members of the Union, acting collectively, have a much stronger say than they can have as individual countries in shaping the management of world affairs in the interests of peace and prosperity.
Ultimately, however, Europe’s peace is sustained by mutual trust and open dialogue. The greatest safeguard for peace lies not in the ability to engage in military action but in the frequent coming together around the same table of the heads of government of all member nations. But this same model of intergovernmental coordination and the engagement of interested parties, is replicated every day in all areas of governance touched by the EU, leading (not always easily or even quickly) to the emergence of consensus. These are the processes which serve as the glue that binds Europe together.
If Britain leaves the EU, it will continue to be influenced by its decisions, but will no longer be able defend its interests in the many decision-making processes. The departure of one of its most influential members is bound also to weaken many aspects of the Union’s work, including all that it does to prevent conflict and to maintain security within its borders.
The EU’s greatest strength – that of bringing so many diverse nations together to address common problems – is also the main source of its vulnerability. By its very nature, decision-making will be cumbersome, and some countries are bound to feel that it cares too little for their special interests or intrudes too much on their sovereignty. It has become all too easy for members to blame the EU for many of the problems they face, even when these are home-made!
The architects of the current renaissance of fascism in much of Europe are the Union’s most vicious critics because they know that there is no place for extremism in an institution so deeply committed to democratic principles and human rights. The greatest current threat to peace in Europe is the potential emergence of a neo-fascist government in one or more of its member states because the EU would be bound to expel them, with unpredictable consequences.
One of the gravest dilemmas posed by the EU referendum result is that the “leave” victory owes much to UKIP, Britain’s emergent neo-fascist party. In the name of democracy, the campaign unleashed a wave of hate crimes, xenophobia and verbal thuggery that contrasts with the natural tolerance and understanding of most British people. The leading Brexit campaigners from outside of UKIP continue to play with fire in order to assure their victory. In so doing, they have aided and abetted the fortunes of extremists who stand for the evils from which our parents and grandparents risked their lives to protect us.
Perhaps, if Boris would reflect on these matters, he might perform a third somersault. Could he not admit, as Churchill might well have done, that, for the future of our children, the big issue is not the single market, the free movement of people or curbing the power of Brussels bureaucrats but the assurance of continued peace in Europe through stopping nascent fascism in its tracks? Given the trans-national nature of today’s neo-fascism, only the collective resolve of all of Europe’s nations can halt it, and this requires that Britain retains its seat at the table.
The Future of Our Children