“Europe was born in Buchenwald”. These words were spoken by former French resistance fighter and concentration camp survivor Stéphane Hessel. As he sees it, the solidarity that grew between Europeans of different nationalities interned in Nazi concentration camps, as well as the burning certainty they shared that they were on the right side of history laid the foundations for peace across the continent, and the eventual push towards political and economic integration.
In 2012, the European Union (EU) received the Nobel Peace Prize. The official motivation for this gesture was that the Union had “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”, apparently supporting Hessel’s point of view.
In the campaign leading up to the United Kingdom’s 2016 referendum on EU membership, proponents of remaining often cited peace as a reason to avoid Brexit.
What becomes clear from Hessel, the EU’s Nobel Prize, Remain campaigners, and many more proponents of ever-closer union is the existence of a widely shared impression that European integration as well as the institutions driving it constitute a force for peace on a continent that would otherwise be at war.
Seven decades without armed conflict between major powers is something to be celebrated. However, the notion that lasting peace is thanks to the gradual federalisation of European nations is contestable at best, and dangerous at worst. If anything, today’s EU is fuelling more conflict across the continent than it resolves.
This blog post first lays out the origins of the idea that peace in Europe is attributable to political and economic integration. It then challenges this idea by identifying key flaws, and finishes by illustrating the EU’s role in fostering conflict across the continent.
For many, it is difficult to discuss peace in Europe without waking emotions. And for good reason; the ravages of the Second World War still linger in living memory. Most Europeans have parents, grandparents or great-grand-parents who experienced or participated in the War. The horrors of the Holocaust, mass air raids, and food shortages (to name a few) are very well documented, and unlikely to depart from collective memory any time soon.
A common narrative of European integration is that it emerged from the ashes of these horrors. As implied by Hessel, people from different nationalities were ready to face a brighter future, hand-in-hand. Never again would the fundamental rights and dignity of human beings be so neglected.
Similarly, Italian political dissidents Altiero Spinelli and Ernesto Rossi composed the Ventotene Manifesto while imprisoned by Mussolini’s fascist regime. In it, they assert that:
The dividing line between progressive and reactionary parties no longer follows the formal line of greater or lesser democracy, or of more or less socialism to be instituted; rather the division falls along the line, very new and substantial, that separates the party members into two groups. The first is made up of those who conceive the essential purpose and goal of struggle as the ancient one, that is, the conquest of national political power – and who, although involuntarily, play into the hands of reactionary forces, letting the incandescent lava of popular passions set in the old moulds, and thus allowing old absurdities to arise once again. The second are those who see the creation of a solid international State as the main purpose; they will direct popular forces toward this goal, and, having won national power, will use it first and foremost as an instrument for achieving international unity.
The basic logic that flows from Hessel, the Ventotene Manifesto and myriad other experiences of the Second World War is that the root of conflict is the nation state. So long as humanity is demarcated along lines and colours on a map, there will be conflict. As such, the removal of these lines will foster trust, unity, and peace.
As well-intentioned as this philosophy may be, it is also dangerously naïve.
Why it’s wrong
Beyond the logical flaw that any problems credited (correctly or incorrectly) to nation-states might also apply to an international state, theories attributing peace in Europe to European integration overlook two very important drivers of peace.
First, and perhaps foremost in producing peace is the role played by the United States after the Second World War. Following the defeat of Nazi Germany in the spring of 1945, the victorious nations—most notably America and the USSR—maintained an enormous military presence across the continent. With little interest in triggering nuclear war, both powers opted for tense but peaceful coexistence, ensuring relative stability on both sides of the Iron Curtain as the war-torn nations of Europe began to rebuild.
In Western Europe, the rebuilding process was accompanied by 13$ billion in aid from the US government (worth about ten times that amount in current dollars). Commonly referred to as the Marshall Plan, this initiative formed part of a comprehensive strategy to remove trade barriers and boost economic growth—ultimately preventing the spread of political extremism (read communism) through prosperity.
This combination of security and economic stability undeniably played an important role in ensuring peace in Western Europe. In fact, this period is often referred to as the Pax Americana—the American Peace. To this day, NATO bases dot the German landscape, and despite recent doubts about the alliance’s future, dozens of nations can attribute their territorial integrity to the umbrella of American protection. To attack one NATO member is to attack them all, including the United States.
A second important factor typically overlooked by proponents of European integration is the role of democracy in preventing armed conflict. Wars are far less likely to break out between legitimate, accountable democratic regimes, and are more likely to occur if at least one of the belligerents is a non-democratic regime. Called the democratic peace theory, the idea (broadly speaking) is that the will of citizens, who are naturally disinclined to the instigation of armed conflict, is better reflected in democratic decision-making. Autocratic political leaders, on the other hand, are shielded from the need for popular consent, and therefore more likely to enter into conflict.
Though not perfect, the notion of democratic peace held true throughout the 20th century. Indeed, no armed conflicts between major powers during this period (notably the two world wars) were between democratic regimes. If anything, natural alliances emerged between democracies (France, Britain and the US), in opposition to more authoritarian regimes (Kaiser Wilhelm II’s German Empire, Hitler’s Germany, Ottoman Turkey, Mussolini’s Italy, Tojo’s Japan, etc.). As such, it is not the nation state that causes war, but authoritarianism, often supported by ideological extremism.
In the context of postwar Europe, the emergence of stable democracies (supported by millions of US troops and billions of US dollars) only served to reduce the likelihood of war. In the improbable scenario that a European state’s government (say Denmark) wished to declare war on another state (say Italy), they would first have to consider their citizens. There is a good chance the declaration of war would receive scrutiny beforehand (in parliament) and afterwards (in subsequent elections), drastically reducing its likelihood. In short, people don’t like war, and any regime taking citizens’ priorities into account reflects this.
How the EU is fuelling conflict
It is one thing for proponents of European integration to overlook important drivers of postwar peace on the continent. Perhaps more dangerous, however, is not recognising the EU’s role in exacerbating conflict across the continent.
To be clear, no war has broken out between any EU member states. However, the goodwill upon which the European project depends has reached an all-time low. Many examples illustrate this, from the EU’s role in sparking the conflict in Ukraine, to open borders and the migration crisis. Possibly the best example, however, is the fallout from the adoption of the euro, which enabled governments in countries like Greece to indebt themselves far beyond their fiscal capacity, causing the sovereign debt crisis that spurred massive bailouts by other EU member states.
Citizens of countries like Germany, where fiscal belt-tightening had occurred a decade earlier, could not understand why their hard-earned taxes were being syphoned into bailout funds for Greece, Portugal, Ireland, Spain and Cyprus. They were even less inclined to then allow these governments to write off part of their loans, which would amount to a direct transfer of German tax revenue to fund Greek welfare. Indeed, a majority of Germans supported their government’s position not to give debt relief to Greece in 2015.
Conversely, a majority of Greeks voted against the imposition of punitive bailout terms in a referendum that same year. When the bailout was agreed to anyway, widespread fury erupted in Greece. Unfortunate parallels were drawn between the German government and Nazism, and hundreds of thousands of workers went on strike later that year.
Without the adoption of the euro, the Greek government would not have been able to indebt itself at artificially low interest rates. Similarly, German taxpayers would not have been called upon to bail out Greece—potentially never to see these funds again. What becomes clear from this ordeal is that the application of one-size-fits-all solutions to different peoples, their economies and institutions inevitably creates imbalances. These imbalances, combined with the complex interdependence generated by integration lead to situations like the Greek tragedy, whereby Germans must prop up a failed state to preserve their own currency, while Greeks must submit their democratic decision-making to the diktats of foreign technocrats.
Within this context, EU member states have two choices: they can either pursue further integration, permanently exacting fiscal transfers from countries like Germany, and permanently denying countries like Greece their right to self-government; or they can choose political, monetary and fiscal independence, allowing national democracies and economies to breathe.
It is often said that history is written by victors. Indeed, over the course of seven decades of European integration, postwar history itself has been revised as the Soviet and American spheres receded from Europe. The founding myths of the European project are more reflective of lofty ideals than hard evidence, yet many take for granted that the EU’s greatest legacy is lasting peace on the continent.
When future generations list the results of European integration, they surely won’t include the creation of lasting peace among them. Rather, they will puzzle over the unnecessary hardships endured both by citizens in countries bailing out indebted states, and citizens in these indebted states implementing conditional policies they never voted for. Indeed, the European project appears to have stoked mistrust and animosity rather than solidarity and common purpose.
Thankfully, there is always a choice. By detaching the institutions of the EU from the myths that surround them, citizens can judge more clearly what role they have played in their lives. There is growing evidence that people are doing exactly that: from French and Dutch voters rejecting the European Constitution, to Greeks refusing punitive bailout terms, to the UK’s decision to leave the EU. When it comes to forging lasting peace in Europe, the answer lies not in Brussels, but in the ballot box.