The EU is responsible for peace in Europe but to make that case effectively, and avoid the roundabout arguments around NATO, we need to be clear on what we mean.
First published in October 2019.
“The EU helped bring peace to Europe.”
“No, it didn’t, it was NATO.”
Anyone who has paid attention to the debate on the EU over the past decade will be familiar with this above exchange. It’s repeated in newspapers, in Parliament, in TV studios and everywhere on social media, on and on, round and round in an endlessly futile argument.
The reason we get stuck in this debate is because we are often not talking about the same thing. Peace is not a simple thing – it is a multi-faceted process that runs through society and across states. There are many sides to peace and in the academic literature the reality of peace in Europe is considered to be ‘overdetermined’. In other words, there are many factors that all contributed to the stable conditions of post-war Europe and it is difficult to mark out any one thing as being the cause (indeed, NATO and the EU are not the only possible explanations, just the most common ones in everyday debates).
What is more realistic than finding a single reason for peace in Europe is to be more precise about what kind of peace we actually mean – in this case, distinguishing between external and internal peace.
First, internal peace is the tendency for European states to have abandoned war between each other. Second, external peace is the absence of invasions into Europe by outside countries.
Now, on the second kind of peace, there is evidently a strong case to be made for NATO being an effective guarantor of external peace. It was designed as an alliance against the Soviet Union, protecting its members against a common adversary. And since the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has expanded eastwards to protect smaller European states from Russia, which has repeatedly attacked neighbours in the last 20 years but which has yet to dare to directly attack a NATO member. It is for this reason that the remaining non-NATO states in Eastern Europe are so keen to join the alliance – it is seen as a route to peace.
Yet this does very little to explain the peace inside Europe. The reality that, even without a common enemy, war within Europe is seen as increasingly incomprehensible. Something that was a regular staple of thousands of years of European history has, in a matter of just a few decades, become almost unthinkable. In fact the very problem with making this argument – that the EU contributes to peace – is that a Europe without peace now seems like ridiculous scaremongering to some citizens, so successful has this project been.
Nonetheless, the EU’s contribution to eliminating conflict within Europe and to bringing together its people is difficult to avoid. Important though it is, NATO had nothing to do with Franco-German reconciliation, bringing together two sworn enemies into a common future as not just allies but friends and brothers (and people who think otherwise should really take a lesson in French attitudes to NATO). In other parts of Europe too, the EU’s ability to unify states together into common institutions, to expose its leaders to repeated interactions, to bring them to the table in the spirit of compromise and to build their societies together, has been incredibly successful. Border disputes still exist (such as between Slovenia and Croatia or Italy and Austria) but no one seriously imagines they will lead to conflict because these are matters that can be discussed and resolved through Europe’s political institutions. And in the remaining parts of ex-Yugoslavia, where those states are working hard to join this community, Europe remains a key part of the answer.
And for us in Britain, how can we be so ignorant of this success when we have the experience of Northern Ireland to act as a lesson? A place scarred by sectarian violence, the institutions of the EU allowed first for the British and Irish states to be brought closer together, our own historical reconciliation, and second made possible the existence of a system of dual identity in Northern Ireland, where people could be both British and Irish and where their access to the Republic of Ireland and to the UK was totally free and open in both cases. Europe is not the Northern Irish peace process itself, but Europe’s architecture is what gave us the tools to design and build that peace.
In all these examples of peace within Europe’s borders, what becomes evident is that peace is not a historical achievement, not a box that was checked in 1945. Though most of us have not lived with conflict in our countries, peace remains very much a matter of the present in two ways. In one sense, we are still living with the proceeds of peace, it is a benefit that extends forwards through time as it becomes possible for individuals, communities and societies, to aspire to greater and greater prosperity and to work towards the common desire of a good life. And in the second sense, peace is an ongoing process that must continuously be built and rebuilt. Peace is not guaranteed and it is possible to go backwards, therefore peace is a victory we win every day. Though we have become ever more detached from conflict, making peace seem increasingly abstract and meaningless, it is as great a priority today as it was 70 years ago.
And so it is this daily pursuit of peace that inspires us to strive for ‘ever closer union among the peoples of Europe’. The triumph of European unity over division and the dream of a permanent peace within Europe is the lesson of our past, the work of our present and the hope of our future.🔷
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