When Europe Stops Remembering: Union, Exit, and European Peace


“World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.” So begins the Schuman Declaration of 1950, often regarded as laying the foundations for the European Union as we know it today. With the memory of two World Wars still fresh in the minds of their citizens, the states of Europe set out to create an economic union that would make war “not only unthinkable, but materially impossible.”

When we talk about the European Union today, our focus is usually economic. Is it fair to allow free movement between such disparate countries? Have there been abuses of welfare systems as a result? Should fiscally balanced countries support those that have overspent? Can a monetary union function without a fiscal one? Is either such a union desirable? These are complex questions that weigh into our understanding of the EU, as they should. But when we talk about Europe in this way, there is one question we ignore, because we take its answer so much for granted.

Has there, since 1945, been within Europe any period of such intense, violent and devastating infighting as there was before?

When we talk about the European Union today, we bypass this question. Yet the primary goal of establishing a European Union was, originally, peace. The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), the first concrete initiative towards an economically intertwined Europe, was established by the 1951 Treaty of Paris, which begins with, “Considering that world peace can only be safeguarded…” The ECSC’s 1957 extension, the European Economic Community, sought “to preserve and strengthen peace and liberty.” The Single European Act of 1986 resolved “to substitute for age-old rivalries the merging of their essential interests; to create, by establishing an economic community, the basis for a broader and deeper community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts.” Even in 1992, the Maastricht Treaty establishing the European Union as we know it today recalled “the historic importance of the ending of the division of the European continent.”

These preambles are more than just words: they reflect the memory of a continent torn apart by war and a desire to bury it for good. They reflect a practical idealism, an understanding that the only way to avoid conflict was to link states inextricably, but also a knowledge that human incentives had to be aligned for this to work. Whether or not their economic logic was sound, their political logic was impeccable: For seventy years, Europe as a whole has seen relatively little conflict.

But ask Europeans what Europe means to them, and their answers are, understandably, distinct from this ideal. The Eurobarometer, a survey of (among other things) public opinion in Europe, reveals a positive correlation between age and associating the EU with peace. The older the respondents, the more likely they were to answer the question “What does the European Union mean to you personally?” with “peace.” Furthermore, the total percentage of respondents giving this answer fell significantly between 1997 and 2010. In contrast, assigning other meanings to Europe – economic, bureaucratic or otherwise – has become more frequent, especially among the young. As time grows between the present and the most recent period of bloody conflict, the “pacifist” identity of Europe has been neglected.

This trend has gone hand in hand with Europeans’ declining trust in the union. Indeed, those who associate the EU with “peace” rather than economic concerns have been consistently less likely to view membership negatively. But even before the financial crisis of 2008, describing EU membership as “bad” was becoming increasingly frequent. Throughout Europe, nationalist and eurosceptic parties have been gaining prominence. In Catalonia and Scotland, this atmosphere of dis-unification has culminated into separatist movements within nations. More recently, walls and border controls have been erected between countries, reminiscent of Cold War, pre-Schengen divisions.

These trends have been most visible in the United Kingdom, where the eurosceptic drive has led Prime Minister David Cameron to attempt a renegotiation of Britain’s membership. This attempt has catered to the fears of UK citizens. These fears are primarily grounded in economic issues, and well are illustrated by Cameron’s letter to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council. Cameron’s requests included the freeing of non-Euro states from responsibility to the currency and a ban against discrimination against those states. He focused on the bureaucratic costs and competitiveness of the EU, expressing a desire to do away with “unnecessary legislation.” He voiced widely-held concerns about the abuse of free movement, especially in relation to welfare, and called for controls on internal migration, in particular for new members whose economies had not yet converged to those of existing EU states.

He did not address the broader peace of the EU, even to dismiss associated concerns. European peace is so taken for granted that no British citizen fears the contrary. And while this belief may be valid in the short term, Cameron’s demands epitomise a broader trend of moving away from making war “materially impossible.”

Cameron’s demands not only exemplify this movement, but also catalyse it. Nere Basabe, a scholar of the history of political thought, notes that “Europe” has long been a future-oriented concept, defined by its forward momentum. Indeed, the Maastricht Treaty “resolved to continue the process of creating an ever-closer union.” In his letter, Cameron sought to exempt Britain from this obligation, explicitly hindering this momentum, and by doing so, implicitly hammering at the foundations of Europe. He asserts that if these reforms were not obtained, he would campaign to exit the EU. A bluff? Perhaps. But this doesn’t diminish its significance. If he gets his reforms and the UK stays, he sets a precedent for other European countries to renegotiate their membership for more economically favourable terms. If he doesn’t, Europe is faced with the non-negligible chance of the UK’s departure: recent polls suggest a small majority in favor of exiting. Even if he does succeed in renegotiating on these terms, as of September 39 percent of Britain would still consider it preferable for the UK to leave the EU.

These are troubling numbers for the pro-EU movement. If the UK leaves, it will be the first country to do so, setting an even louder precedent than renegotiation. And the stakes go higher still. The UK is Europe’s second-largest economy, and is set to be the most populous country by 2050. If it goes, it leaves a precedent, but it may also take with it an incentive for other nations to stay.

The problems faced by the southern states, the questions about the future of the Euro, and the issues with free movement are difficult ones, and ones made all the more difficult by declining popular support for the EU. Attitudes towards dealing with these issues are contingent upon believing in the value of keeping the union together, and if the economic costs are thought to outweigh the economic benefits, Europe’s political successes may be sidelined once and for all.

Is it possible, then, to refocus Europeans’ concerns? And if so, how? One answer – naïve though it sounds – may be memory. Comparing the UK to Germany in this domain, we notice three primary differences. Firstly, Germany has consistently valued “peace” as a reason for EU membership more than has the UK. Secondly, it has accordingly tended to view the EU less negatively, and to deal with it more proactively. Finally, Germany has reckoned with its twentieth-century past in a very different way to the UK. Where Britain’s educational system and political discourse play heavily on rose-tinted memories of its imperial past, Germany has worked to acknowledge the nationalist and ethnically focused identity of its past. Correspondingly, where Britain views the EU as a threat to its national and international authority, Germany has embraced Europe’s universalising nature as a substitute for the nationalism that it saw as the root of the conflicts of the first half of the twentieth century.

Germany today is widely considered a leader and example for European policy and ideals. In the midst of the Greek debt crisis, it ultimately voted to approve the bailout, hence keeping Greece in the Eurozone and further affirming its dedication to the Union. Though many considered the conditions of the bailout grossly unreasonable—New York Times economist Paul Krugman was particularly virulent, calling them “a grotesque betrayal of everything the European project was supposed to stand for”—the underlying question behind the vote in the Bundestag was to whether to keep Greece in the Euro, or to force it to re-adopt its own currency. The “yes” vote understood the implications of Grexit, explicitly economic, but with a deeply-rooted underlying support for Europe as a union. Germany considered the costs incurred bailing out Greece less than those of risking a European break up. The UK, perhaps understandably given its position as a non-Euro state, nonetheless refused to partake in the bailout, an expression of its prevailing Euroscepticism.

When it came to the refugee crisis, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, at first tepid about accepting so many migrants, came out in fervent support for the refugees: “If Europe fails on the question of refugees, then it won’t be the Europe we wished for.” Her stance embraces the origins of the EU, contrasting starkly with Cameron’s feeble claims that taking in more migrants would overwhelm the UK. While support for nationalist parties in Germany has risen in recent months, this still trails in comparison to Britain’s UKIP or France’s National Front. And in light of Cameron’s attempt to renegotiate membership, Merkel has reaffirmed Germany’s support for a Britain inside the EU, suggesting also that the UK would have to take on other responsibilities (such as contributions to a European army) were it to desire German support for the concessions it seeks.

Though far from perfect, Germany’s attitude towards Europe has broadly been a determination to uphold the ties and the values of the European project, in spite of its burdens. And it is necessary to credit part of this dedication to Germany’s collective memory of the twentieth century, a collective memory that understands the need for the EU on a more profound level than purely economic advantages.

Memory is not everything, but it is vastly important. And if Europe’s memories fade too much, stray too far from the trauma of the twentieth century, or start to erase the tragedy of a nationalistic past, it runs the risk of succumbing to nationalism in the future. There is a fine line between letting the past dictate the future and letting history inform the present. But if we stray too far to one side, we may see Europe once more at the mercy of disunity.