What’s Really On The Line In the Brexit Vote

Obama raised eyebrows with his intervention into the debate about whether the UK should leave the European Union. The thing that struck me the most about this, however, was that he touched on, if only slightly, the thing that has been almost entirely ignored in almost everything else I have read on the debate, even from those who should know better. This strikes me as strange because, as important as issues of immigration, sovereignty and economics may be, there is something far more important: The EU’s role in maintaining peace.

There are plenty of reasons to dislike the EU, but if you really think bad monetary policy and the over-subsidization of agriculture, or even forced austerity, are the worst things in the world, I suggest you have a chat with a refugee from Syria, Iraq or the DRC. Alternatively, go and stand in one of the apparently endless fields of crosses marking the war dead from the First World War. Or an unrepaired bombsite from the second. Or Aushwitz. It was a repetition of these things the EU was intended to prevent.


So forgotten is the EU’s purpose that I have had conversations with highly educated Australians who were amazed to discover that peace was even an objective of its founders. Yet how could it not have been? The groundwork was laid in the late 1940s and 1950s by people who had, almost without exception, lost loved ones or limbs in one of the two horrific conflicts that devastated Europe in the first half of the 20th Century. In that era, little was done in diplomatic circles without the awareness of the need to prevent a repetition.

Others acknowledge this was a reason for the EU’s predecessors to come into existence, but see it as an overreaction to a couple of aberrant atrocities in an otherwise largely peaceful history.

This is deeply wrong. When the first stirrings of what became the EEC, and eventually the EU, were founded, the original six members would have struggled to name a period of any length where all of them had been at peace at once. The longest continuous period without war for the six was 43 years, starting in 1871. It didn’t end well. Before that, they were lucky to get a decade in which no armies marched across the plains of one state or another. The history of Eastern Europe was no better. This is the case not just for centuries, but millennia. We now know largescale warfare in Germany goes back more than 3000 years.

The contrast since then is remarkable. For the founding six, it is now 71 years without war on their home soil. Certainly other conflicts have sometimes brought terrorism to their doors, but in terms of homegrown conflicts the worst, even among later arrivals, have been the Northern Ireland troubles and the struggle for Basque independence. Both have brought a terrible toll, but combined have killed fewer people than a single hour on the Somme or during the bombing of Dresden.

Moreover, the EU may be a big part of the reason these smaller conflicts are fast disappearing in our rear view mirror. When a substantial portion of your governance comes from Brussels, people feel less inclined to kill others over whether the remaining portion will be from London or Dublin.

It’s possible of course, that this is coincidence. That the arrival of a completely unprecedented period without war and the creation of an institution carefully crafted to bring peace just happened to occur together. Maybe. But it’s not very likely. Plenty of explanations for Western Europe’s modern peace have been offered. Most are things that are enhanced by the existence of the EU – democracy, trade, economic growth. Others are looking increasingly improbable as explanations – fear of the soviets, nuclear weapons – now that the wall has been down for nearly three decades and France and Germany show no signs of getting back to slaughtering each other.

Amazingly, I’ve even seen people argue the EU doesn’t stop wars because of the dreadful violence in Bosnia, Chechnya and the Ukraine. Umm… that’s what happens when you’re not part of the club. It would be great if the EU could create peace across the entire continent, or maybe keep its members from invading Africa and Asia. But stopping war at home was the primary intent, and success on that alone justifies its existence. It’s not as though all those other wars would have been avoided if the EU hadn’t been there.

Another argument is that we needed the EEC to prevent war, but it did its job, and around the time it became the EU it could have been wound up instead, and eternal peace would still reign. I can’t prove this wrong, but you’d want to be pretty convinced of this dubious theory before you decided to scrap an institution that’s probably the reason no one has dropped a bomb on your bedroom.

The final argument is that it may be terribly important that the French, German and Benelux stay together, and possibly the more recent members, but the UK doesn’t need to be in. True, it is unlikely that Brexit, should it occur, will lead to a revival of the war within the boundaries of Great Britain – Culloden is indeed long ago. An exit might stir renewed violence in Northern Ireland, but some might consider that a few dozen deaths a year a price worth paying.

While this argument is stronger than the rest, that’s a low bar. A UK exit will weaken the EU, placing it in more danger of collapse, and certainly make it harder for it to absorb new members.

Moreover, a UK exit could go two ways: It could lead to the economic catastrophe some have predicted, driving up unemployment and poverty, with all their associated evils. Terrible as that would be for the UK, it’s actually the good outcome for everyone else. Because the alternative is that leaving the EU is seen as a viable option, something every authoritarian leader stymied in his plans to oppress ethnic or religious minorities by the EU can wave in the face of nervous citizens.

Already Hungary is ruled by monsters whose firm desire to commit genocide on vulnerable minorities is stymied only by EU membership. The new government if Poland is possibly worse. EU membership is keeping people alive. How long after a successful Bexit, should it occur, will these countries stay in.

Even if you are entirely indifferent to the survival of Hungary’s Romany, or its few remaining Jews, consider this: If a UK exit sets off a chain reaction, how immune will Britain be from the wars that follow? Even if there is no repeat of the military engagement, no bombs raining on Leicester and Coventry, I doubt things will go well for Britain in such circumstances. If you think the small proportion of Syrian refugees making it across the Channel are a problem, wait until it is millions of French and Belgians, or even Czeck and Slovaks, desperate for somewhere to go.

Maybe such scenarios are unlikely – although the entire weight of history argues otherwise – but if there is even a chance they will occur, what could possibly drive one to want to take the risk?

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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