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9 May 2016updated 09 Sep 2021 12:04pm

How valid is the claim that the EU has delivered peace in Europe?

For many arguing that the UK should remain in the EU, the first and foremost claim is that it is a force for peace.

By Andrew Williams

A few years ago, the EU was awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. The Scottish Herald described the award as ‘crass’, one which would inflame ‘tensions when many of the EU’s 500 million citizens have been thrown into penury by the worst recession since the 1930s.’ I remember some thought it was a joke. Lord Lamont was quoted saying the decision was ‘preposterous and absurd.’

But the Nobel committee was serious. It applauded the EU for its contribution over six decades to ‘the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe’ and being instrumental in ‘transforming most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.’

Now, the Remain campaign point to the attainment of peace in Europe as one if its highest ranking achievements. Whatever else it may have or have not done, the Union has helped avoid war between the current members of the EU since 1945. David Cameron makes that very point today, reminding us that countries previously at ‘each others’ throats’ now lived and worked together for peace. Even Boris Johnson in the Leave camp has been reluctant to contradict the assertion. He says the EU was ‘born of the highest motives – to keep the peace in Europe.’

For sure, ending fighting between the ‘great powers’ (France, Germany, Italy and the UK in particular, though most others have fought bloody wars too), has to be celebrated. For centuries, these countries had battled over territory, power, religion and God knows what else, regularly bringing the continent to its knees and regularly inflicting atrocities on its peoples. The Second World War was perhaps only the most destructive of a long history of conflict.

So stopping that cycle of violence for more than 70 years has to be worth applauding.

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But then, some years ago, when I was writing about the EU’s values, it occurred to me that it was too simplistic to think of ‘peace’ as only meaning the absence of war. Just as I wouldn’t define ‘love’ as the absence of ‘hatred’, I thought ‘peace’ had to imply more than just an end to military conflict between European states. And now, as the Remain camp keeps referring to ‘peace’ as the fundamental achievement of the EU, it’s apt that we look a little more closely at the claim. How instrumental has the Union been in keeping the peace as well as stopping war for its members? How good has it been in developing a continent at peace and contributing to a world without war? What influence has it had in reducing and resolving conflict?

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An internal peace?

When in 1984 the then Presidents of Germany and France, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, held manly hands outside the First World War cemetery in Verdun, many remarked on the gesture’s historical significance. Age old animosity replaced with intimacy, they said. Past hatreds buried. No one believed anymore that war would ever be possible between the two countries again.

Great credit for this was (and still is) given to the EU’s method. In binding key western European nations together in a mutually beneficial free market, blurring economic if not geographical borders, the incentive for using war as a shortcut to power and wealth has diminished to the point of becoming unthinkable. That was the inspired idea behind the European Economic Community, now the EU, in 1957. A rapprochement.

But if peace means the resolution of hatreds, the righting of wrongs, then the original EU/EEC buried much. In tying age-old enemies together, a lot of forgetting had to be done. It was no coincidence that Mitterrand and Kohl chose a memorial of a particularly bloody First World War battlefield (where the men of both sides fell in their tens of thousands) to show their friendship. There was no posing outside Second World War sites: Natzweiler concentration camp in the Alsace Mountains, where the Germans had overseen the slaughter of tens of thousands of French citizens only a little more than a decade before the EEC was constructed. Mont Valérien fort near Paris, where the SS executed the largest number of French Resistance fighters during the German occupation of France. Compiègne from where the Vichy French and German authorities conspired to deport 50,000 Jews for extermination in the camps of Eastern Europe. It suited both countries, and those four others who formed the first members of the EEC, to forget the evils of Nazism and collaboration in its genocidal programmes. In comparison, WW1 held far fewer ambiguities.

There can be little doubt, though, that the EU eventually woke up to the need to come to terms with its past. Since the late 1980s, at least, there’s been much greater appetite to confront the twin evils of racism and nationalism (though it was only as late as 2005 that Holocaust Memorial Day was finally and officially adopted as a commemorative necessity for the Union). That may have had more to do with the threats of a resurgence in ethnic violence both internally and on its borders in the Former Yugoslavia after 1991.

Whatever the cause of this awakening, the EU now maintains that it is consistent in its opposition to the kind of extremism that could lead to conflict amongst its Member States. Over the past couple of decades, it’s put resources into confronting racism in particular, although the EU’s own Fundamental Rights Agency has very recently called on Member States and the EU itself to increase efforts to combat anti-Semitism and hate crime in the wake of disturbing evidence that both were on the increase.

Still, the way the EU does business suggests that it’s pre-programmed to resolve major disputes by negotiation and compromise. Resort to some kind of internal military clash is simply unimaginable, something that has undoubtedly attracted non-member European countries, particularly in Eastern Europe and the Balkans. In a world otherwise quick to resort to violence, this is quite an achievement and not to be given up lightly.

Closer to home, the EU has been supporting peace initiatives in Northern Ireland ever since 1995: over the next few years, it’s committed to providing a further €229m to support ‘projects that contribute towards the promotion of greater levels of peace and reconciliation’. That sends something of a message, doesn’t it?

Peace beyond the border

But has that peaceful mission extended to and beyond the EU’s borders?

When the more powerful EU member states have occasionally gone to war outside Europe, the EU has had very little to say. Worse: often it’s appeared like an embarrassed teenager, looking away from parental misbehaviour, pretending it has nothing to do with them. Hear no evil, see no evil has been its mantra on occasion. During the Iraq War in 2003, for instance, the EU was noticeable for its silence. Neither support nor condemnation came from Brussels, leaving the matter taboo as a Union issue. There may have been considerable dialogue between France and Germany and the UK and other member states, but the EU wasn’t involved.

Nor had the EU anything much to say in the bombing of Libya in 2011 and Syria over the past six months. France and the UK have made their decisions to use military force independently (as have Denmark and the Netherlands in attacks against ISIS targets in Iraq). Again the EU has buried its head. If peace was such a pre-eminent value for the EU the idealist might have expected more.

Perhaps, though, this is a price of peace inside the Union. If the EU allows itself to be drawn into external conflicts prompted by its most powerful members and their interests then it could easily succumb to violence. Far better, some might say, for those states, able and willing to intervene militarily in other parts of the world, to be distinct from the EU. That leaves the EU’s hands clean. It can act as honest broker or move into a damaged territory in the aftermath of conflict. It can provide humanitarian and development aid without being directly associated with the killing and suffering that inevitably comes with waging war for good or ill.

Beyond the unilateral conduct of its members, the EU has for some time now sought to pursue a foreign policy supposedly premised on achieving peace for the world. Ever since the 1970s it has tried to adopt an independent role in global affairs, an identity based on peace. The rhetoric has been consistent: conflict prevention, peace-building, crisis-management. And it has applied resources and a diplomatic service (now called rather blandly the European External Action Service) with these goals in mind.

Few think it’s been that successful. Inevitably critics look to its failures first. Ever since the Balkan wars after 1991, the EU has been accused of impotence in resolving conflict. Time and again, it has been seemingly incapable of intervening in a coordinated and effective way. The Former Yugoslavia disintegrated into chaos right under its nose.

It has performed little better in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over decades. Or in the Ukraine. Or with the Russian annexation of Crimea. Sanctions may be imposed, diplomatic measures applied, but they’re often muted. Too frequently for some commentators, the economic weight of the EU has counted for nothing when faced with intractable conflicts around the world.

Perhaps this criticism is unfair, though. The EU may have failed to resolve terrible wars on its periphery, but what other power has been more effective? The UN? The USA? China? Have they better served the interests of peace or solved enduring conflicts in the Middle East and Africa? Hardly.

What the EU has done is pour money into a foreign policy supposed to be predicated on the attainment of peace. During 2014 it spent over €300 million, though the amount was spread pretty thinly, as the report on foreign affairs last year shows: there was some form of involvement in over 80 countries. And that was on top of collective action in limiting the arms trade, encouraging peace processes in the Middle East and the Great Lakes region of Africa, confronting international terrorism, addressing the threat of climate change and more. Whether any of this has been effective is very hard to judge: certainly there are those sceptical of individual efforts. And whether it truly looks to long term causes of conflicts, economic inequality and structural violence in particular, and tries to deal with them, is very doubtful.

On its borders, the EU has for some time been criticised for failing to resolve problems in a way commensurate with broader notions of peace and respect for others. Now, there’s more than a suspicion that the EU is failing in its approach to the migration crisis under international law. The UN’s Secretary General, Ban Ki-moon has been particularly scathing.


Where does that leave me? Wary certainly of a simplistic assertion that the EU has given the continent peace. Though the claim that it has made the ‘scourge of war’ unlikely if not unthinkable in Western Europe may be valid, it’s also often been blind to the roots of war, inefficient and chaotic in its response to conflict, and all too willing to turn away from difficult questions involving the actions of its Member States and the problems faced in the world.

But ultimately, the EU is institutionally programmed to favour peace and not the use of military force. Though it can and does leave the challenges of confronting violence directly to other organisations (NATO particularly), the EU signals a pacific intent. And that might be its enduring virtue. The fact that many people are disappointed that it hasn’t done more or enough for the cause of peace perhaps indicates the EU’s potential as a vehicle of the non-violent resolution of conflicts, wherever they occur. And if so, isn’t it better to be at the heart of such an organisation intent on solving violent disputes peacefully and collectively?

Idealistic that may be. But is peace an ideal that we should ignore in favour of hard economic benefit?

This article was originally published on Lacuna magazine, and is republished here with permission.

Andrew Williams is Lacuna’s editor-in-chief. He teaches law and creative writing at the University of Warwick and is the author of A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa, which won the George Orwell Prize for Political Writing in 2013. The book tells the story of a murder in Basra in 2003, for which no one has yet been brought to justice.