Surely the age of warfare in Europe is over? What harm can it do then if Britain leaves the EU that maintained peace for so long? These are common assumptions, but we know that under the political and diplomatic surface war is always raging.
Nicola Sturgeon, speaking in favour of the Remain campaign on tonight’s ITV EU debate, said that the European Union had brought about the “longest uninterrupted period of peace in modern history.” This is true, the common agreement of both the largest and the majority of European States on matters of trade and security have made war and inter-state armed conflict within the EU a thing of the past. As a corporatist super-polity, we should have our concerns about the European project, but credit where it is due – the EU has brought Europe’s longest period of peace.
After tweeting this quote the Butterfly Rebellion account found itself in an interesting discussion about the nature of the Brexit and its implications for the peace and security of Europe. Jon Baily of St. Ives, Cambridgeshire, asked the logical question as to whether war and chaos would reign after a British exit from the EU. As the conversation progressed he repeated a number of assumptions concerning the present state of peace in Europe. His assertion that conflicts of the magnitude of the First and Second World Wars were no longer possible in Europe, adding that perhaps we might see it instead in the Middle East.
@Butterfly_Reb how have the borders of the main countries in Europe changed in the last 116 years? Not by much.—
Jon Baily (@JonBaily) June 09, 2016
@JonBaily Britain's 1922 | Russia's 1991 | Ukraine 2015 | Prussia's 1871 | Germany 1918, 1945, 89 I France 1915 & 45 | Italy 1870 Yes, much.—
Butterfly Rebellion (@Butterfly_Reb) June 09, 2016
Sure, given the media’s bent on peace in Europe (implicitly defined, problematically, as the absence of actual armed violence between states), and the reality of conflict in a number of Middle Eastern countries, this is a fair assumption to make. Yet while it may be fair it is also completely inaccurate. Europe was battle ready for the entire duration of the Cold War, a phony war that hasn’t entirely gone away. Over the past decade the United States has been making its military presence increasingly felt in the Baltic region, arming and training with Estonia and Lithuania in a show of force meant for Putin’s Russia. Washington and Moscow have again come face to face.
Much the same can be said of events in the Ukraine where US and EU interests were put down with Russia’s swift military action and the annexation of Crimea. Further south, in Syria, Russia and the United States have been locked in an intensifying proxy war. It is right to point out that this is not “war.” Thousands of people are not being killed all across Europe, but this position demands the stasis, the pause, of history. War never simply erupts from the silence; war is the result of mounting tensions and the intensification of bad diplomatic relations over time. The present European stand-off is, in this regard, little different from the 1914 July Crisis and the Phony War of 1939. Sour relations require only the right catalyst for war to break out.
In defence of his position – a remarkably common position – he pointed to the stability of Europe’s borders since 1800. What stability? There has been no stability of Europe’s borders at any time, and this was pointed out. Since 1918 Europe’s borders have been continually shifting. Prussia came and went. Germany was divided, reunified, divided again, and again reunified. Poland, Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania have expanded, shrunk, disappeared, and reappeared. Russia’s frontiers have been in constant flux, and even in 1922 the borders of Britain changed. The most recent significant change was only last year in the Ukraine. All nations are always in flux, and territory continues to be a serious cause of international conflict.
In leaving the EU Britain will weaken the common security of Europe. Love or hate the EU, this is just a fact. To imagine that because we have peace today guarantees tomorrow’s peace in naïve in the extreme. This position rests on the misguided belief that history has reached some Fukuyamaesque End, in which the undercurrents of international disputes, ambitions, and grievances have been put on ice. Europe will not descend immediately into a violent new dark age when Britain leaves, but Britain’s departure takes from Europe a great weight from the collective that has secured a common peace. Peace is fragile, and, unless it is actively sought and not merely taken for granted, its continuance is never sure.
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