Did the EU Cause the Last 70 Years of European Peace?

Somehow I’ve gotten in the habit of listening to Sam Harris’ podcasts. He seems to have a gift for finding just the right words to express difficult thoughts, and he never fails to cover interesting topics, often joined by interesting people. So if I have to do some boring manual task – chopping vegetables or cleaning the living room – then Sam Harris it is.

One recent podcast had journalist James Kirchick as a guest, and the matter of the EU came up. Kirchick makes the case for the importance of the EU to European peace about as powerfully as one could (from about 51:55): “I talk to a lot of Europeans, and a lot of them who are Eurosceptics, who want to dissolve the EU. And I just ask them simply, ‘What’s your alternative? What period in European history was more prosperous or peaceful than the, basically, seventy years of European integration that you’ve had? Why would you want to risk that? Knowing what the alternative has been, why would you want to risk that by getting rid of this institution? And I agree, the EU has lots of problems… it’s too bureaucratic… I could go on and on. But to scrap it entirely, and to go off in this other direction when we know what’s happened historically, we know what’s happened… when all the European countries have pursued their national agendas at the expense of cooperation.”

This is, I think, a bad argument, but the basic idea behind it is treated by Europhiles as if it were a self-evident truth. I can remember roaming the streets of Brussels in 2015; I happened upon a music festival at which some EU dignitary soon gave a speech. “The EU gave you peace,” she declared. She did not try to argue or show how the EU produced peace; rather she felt able to take it as obvious.

I think there’s a need to push back against this, not only because it’s wrong, but also because the mistake can be dangerous. Certainly I’m willing to admit that the EU has made certain limited contributions to peace, but it has also undermined the basis of peace in Europe, and I’m inclined to think the latter effect is more significant than the former.

Before I say why, let me begin with a concession: the EU has made some contribution to peace. This past summer I was talking with a fellow from Portugal who told me that back in the days of Franco, the Portuguese had real fears of a Spanish invasion. That’s now over. Assuming this is true (I admit I hadn’t known this before), I think it’s reasonable to attribute some credit for this change to the European Union: by creating a focus for political activity over and above that national border, a situation was created in which local tensions could tend naturally to relax and disappear. Northern Ireland provides another example; there may well be other regional tensions that have been allowed to dissolve in a similar manner: the EU has, in certain local situations, been helpful.

But let’s not kid ourselves: in neither of the examples I’ve just given can anyone pretend that the EU has provided 70 years of peace. And neither the founders of the EU nor most of its present-day advocates were thinking of Ireland or the Iberian peninsula when they talked about peace. No, they were (and are) focused on The Big One: the Franco-German fault and the prevention of another general war. Here it should be obvious that the EU has been largely irrelevant.

There are many reasons we haven’t had another Franco-German conflict. For example, Germany has become an essentially pacifist country (I think this is no longer a good thing, but that’s another post). Of course it’s a good thing that the French and the Germans have turned to the path of reconciliation, and the EU was downstream from those efforts. But even if that had not happened, even if Germany had become an angry, hate-filled, militaristic country after 1945, and even if Germany had managed to put a new Hitler in command, still there would not have been another war: France had acquired nuclear weapons. I’ve explained elsewhere why I think Hitler was very far indeed from a military genius, but even Hitler would not have attacked a nuclear-armed France.

And of course, even absent that consideration, there is another reason that there was no third major war in Europe: after 1945, the world was suddenly a very different place, with very different concerns. Western European countries, above all the Germans, were focused on the east; on either side of the iron curtain, countries shared a common danger, and this inclined them towards a common peace with others on their side. Lessons learned from WWII meant that countries came together (in NATO) for common security. The atom bomb and the Americans were sufficient to keep the Russians from rolling the dice. After 1989, peace had become a habit, and anyway, the presence of overwhelming American power presented a significant deterrent.

Where, in all of this, did the EU play any role at all? If there had never been any move at all towards a European Union, at what point exactly, or in what respect, would its absence have been likely to bring about a major war? Looking at the actual situation since 1945, I can see reasons to give credit for seven decades of peace to the United States and to nuclear weapons. Certainly there were plenty of other factors that helped, but none were nearly so important as these two.

Let’s return to Kirchick’s questions: “What period in European history was more prosperous or peaceful than the, basically, seventy years of European integration that you’ve had? Why would you want to risk that?” Yes, we’ve had decades of gradual European integration, and these have coincided with seven decades of common peace, but it does not follow that the integration caused the peace. On the contrary, I think I’ve just outlined the major causes of that peace, and the EU isn’t one of them.

But I don’t think that people who give the EU credit for European peace have a specific scenario in mind. Rather, there’s a more general thesis at work: for the duration of its history as a plurality of countries, Europe has known constant wars; a different result requires a fundamental change; and a single European state would provide that by eliminating the plurality of interests that go along with a plurality of states. I suspect Kirchick is getting at something like this when he says “we know what’s happened… when all the European countries have pursued their national agendas at the expense of cooperation.”

But it is not the case that all wars are the result of conflicting national interests, nor that having one country produces peace, while having many leads to war. Canada and the US are two separate countries, not one, and they have been at peace for two centuries. In that time, the US, which is one country, not many, has had a civil war. So too has Switzerland, which is also one country, not many. So replacing many countries with a single country is very far from a guarantee of an end to war.

All this should suffice to show why I don’t think the EU deserves credit for seventy years of European peace. But in fact, I think the situation is rather worse than that: there are reasons to fear that the EU has made conflict more, rather than less, likely as we look to the future.

Above all, the fact is that bad thinking about the causes of war and peace is a very dangerous thing indeed. The thirties, in which the western democracies indulged in pacifist fantasies when they ought to have been focused on military power, give an example of the danger here. I find myself increasingly inclined to make a connection between the claim that the EU has caused peace and the general European indifference to NATO (an indifference manifested in the tiny number of EU members that reach the 2% of GDP obligation for military spending). That is, by repeating the mantra that the EU has been the cause of peace, one makes it easy to discount the importance of NATO (or, alternately, hard to see its importance). There is a widespread tendency towards a one-sided belief in the value of soft power here; to the extent that the US moves towards isolationism (we will have to see what President Trump does), that could leave Europe, particularly its eastern fringe, dangerously exposed, the very sort of situation that made WWII possible.

But there is a second, perhaps more important regard in which the EU has promoted the possibility of conflict: by the lack of wisdom in its actions and in its founding idea. The euro crisis and austerity has not been a cause of great love for Germany, particularly in Greece, and we haven’t seen the end of it yet. The attempt at forced migration quotas was similarly unfortunate, and could hardly have been better calculated to give fresh impetus to nationalist movements. Above all, the notion of a top-down replacement of national identities with a common European one was not wisdom. Yes, the last few major European wars were caused by excessive or extreme forms of nationalism, but it does not follow that the answer is to rush to the opposing extreme. Pride in local culture and achievements is an altogether natural thing, and identities built around this can be altogether benign. Attempts to impose an identity that ignores the natural attachments of most people greatly increase the risks of encountering the malignant forms of those attachments, in a backlash. The answer that the EU provides to question of peace in Europe is altogether too simple – indeed, it seems to me to refuse really to confront the problem. I do admit that simple solutions to complex problems may work in the short term.

This notion that there is at the very heart of the European project a source of danger, is one that the great English essayist, Theodore Dalrymple, has addressed on a number of occasions, often in a highly diverting manner. Consider, for example, the following: “The journalist … asked whether I thought that nationalism was dangerous. The question implied that the choice before Europe was between the European Union and fascism: that all that stood between us and the ascension to power of new Mussolinis, Francos, and Hitlers were the free lunches of senior Eurocrats. I replied that dangerous forms of nationalism existed, of course, but that in the present circumstances, supranationalism represented by far the greater danger. Not only was such supranationalism undemocratic, for it reflected no widespread demand or sentiment among the population; it also risked provoking the very kind of nationalism against which it was to stand as the bulwark. Further, the breakup of supranational polities in Europe tends to be messy, as history demonstrates.” (see also here)

I don’t mean to say that the EU has done no good in any regard, but surely it’s time to put this one to rest: the EU has not been the cause of peace in Europe in the last seventy years, nor has it been anything like one of the most important causes.

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