Of all the richly diverse towns and cities of the South West of England, each with its unique history and culture, Plymouth is the place that most strongly reminds me of the peace mission of the EU. With its wonderful natural harbour and strategic position, Plymouth has played a central role in Britain’s battles for hundreds of years. The City is proud of this heritage but it came at a great cost. A walk on The Hoe takes you past the huge memorial to so many men ‘whose only grave was the sea’, positioned next to a sensory garden dedicated to the propagation of peace.
Both my Plymouth grandparents were inveterate campaigners for peace and this was no doubt an influence on my own decision to become a Quaker. The Quaker peace testimony advises us to ‘seek out the causes of war’, recognising that war, like peace, has deep roots and a long history. Injustice, inequality, and ignorance are the deeper causes of war, and the determination to struggle against these scourges is explicitly embedded in the founding principles of the European Union.
On this day, 66 years ago, 9th May 1950, Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Minister at the time, gave a memorable speech making the case for a new model of political and economic cooperation. Europe Day is now an annual celebration marking that ‘Schuman Declaration’, when European governments determined to make war between historic rivals France and Germany “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”. This was ultimately the beginnings of the European Union we know today.
For Schuman and the other men who founded the EU – Winston Churchill, Konrad Adenauer and Ted Heath – the experience of the Second World War was formative. For them ‘never again’ was an article of faith that they determined to put into practice through the deliberate construction of a political alliance that went beyond treaties and promises and required genuine sharing of both sovereignty and economic might. The creation of such close ties, they believed, would make wars in our continent unthinkable if not impossible and the past 60 years of peace and prosperity have vindicated this vision.
The Brexiteers claim that it is NATO that has kept us safe in Europe. But a military alliance, whose driving message is that to avoid war we must prepare for war, and requires all members to spend 2 per cent of their GDP on weapons, cannot be regarded as an instrument of peace. This alliance is a relic of the Cold War that should have been dismantled decades ago. From a Quaker perspective NATO, particularly when it acts as a cheerleader for the arms trade, might be seen as a cause of war rather than keeper of the peace.
Many of the tokens of the EU’s peace mission are grand, pompous even: the anthem, the flag, the seemingly endless hand-shaking and ceremonial. But the more effective peace-building is through the subtle interconnections of European twinning programmes such as Erasmus educational exchanges and academic links. When I worked in academia I was involved in a vast European research project drawing in several countries and a dozen universities. As well as food for thought this also involved a lot of food for the stomach and left me wondering whether it was a waste of money.
This questioning led me to understand the subtlety of such exchanges which a thin auditing approach fails to capture. War depends on alienation from the enemy, a process that thrives in ignorance but cannot succeed when we have shared meals and ideas across our continent. My understanding of the cultures and lifestyles of our European neighbours has been underpinned throughout my life by school visits, twinning activities and academic exchanges, all put in place and funded by the EU.
Peace is not, as the dictionaries would have it, the absence of war. Peace is a condition achieved through determination and willful action. For this reason I like the fact that in Welsh the word for peace – Heddwych – is an active word, an injunction even: ‘Make peace!’ This was the message branded onto the hearts of those who fought their fellow Europeans twice within 30 years and who later built the European Union. We must defend not disparage the legacy of peace and prosperity their mission achieved for us.