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Has the EU Really Saved Europe From War?

20/05/2016 16:41 | Updated 20 May 2016

Which pro-EU fanatic do you think said this? 'Brexit is a dangerous gamble which could trigger a gradual disentanglement of the EU and jeopardise the peace and stability created following the end of the second world war.'

Clearly, it was someone who has never heard of NATO. Except it wasn't. It was Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who happens to be a former secretary-general of NATO and presumably is well aware of the respective roles that the two organisations have played in keeping the peace in Europe.

Pro-Leave campaigners complained loudly when David Cameron made a similar point 10 days ago. 'Of this I am completely sure,' he said. 'The European Union has helped reconcile countries which were at each other's throats for decades.'

As you may recall, he was roundly mocked for this claim by that renowned historian and wanna-be prime minister Boris Johnson: 'I think all this talk of World War Three and bubonic plague is totally demented frankly.' Which is exactly the opposite of what this arch-disciple of consistency said in his biography of Winston Churchill: 'Together with NATO (another institution for which [Churchill] can claim joint credit) the European Community, now Union, has helped to deliver a period of peace and prosperity for its people as long as any since the days of the Antonine emperors.'

(Note for non-classicists: 'The Nerva-Antonine dynasty was a dynasty of seven Roman emperors who ruled over the Roman Empire from 96 AD to 192 AD.' - Wikipedia)

So let's play a game of make believe. Let's pretend that there was no European Union (as it then wasn't) when the Soviet empire collapsed in 1991. Let's pretend that the Communist dictatorships of central and eastern Europe imploded and that, as usually happens when decades of authoritarianism give way to a more pluralistic political system, a period of chaos ensued. Without the offer of EU membership, conditional on the post-Communists adopting a long list of democratic values, the so-called Copenhagen criteria, it is more than possible that the almost painless transition to democracy would have been a great deal bumpier.

It is impossible to prove a negative. But a quick look at what has happened in the Arab world in countries where authoritarian regimes have been overthrown suggests that there is nothing automatic about peaceful transitions. It is also worth noting that, as in the Arab world, in central and eastern Europe, with only a few exceptions, there was no real tradition of democracy, most countries having been ruled variously by the Russians, Germans or Ottomans for much of their recent history.

Now consider the fate of the Balkans. When Yugoslavia imploded in 1990, the EU was left floundering. You could even argue with some justification that, if anything, it made things worse by being too ready to recognise the self-declared independent republic of Croatia. It eventually took NATO intervention (ie US involvement) in first Bosnia and then Kosovo to halt the horrors of ethnic cleansing, but it was then the EU that encouraged the emergence of new leaders in both Croatia and Serbia who put the past behind them in the hope of being admitted to the Brussels club. (Croatia joined in 2013, and Serbia is currently negotiating the terms of its entry.)

Would Slobodan Milošević, Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić have been arrested without pressure from the EU? Quite possibly not, thus strengthening the argument that the EU has been, largely, a force for good in the most turbulent corner of Europe. I assume no one needs reminding where the conflagration that became the First World War had its origins.

Fine. So what does any of this have to do with the UK referendum next month? Pro-Leave campaigners say the EU is welcome to continue along its merry way, but without the UK on board. Except that an EU without the UK will be a weaker EU, and a pro-Leave vote may even, as Anders Fogh Rasmussen suggested, lead to the gradual unravelling of the entire project.

Bottom line: a vote for the UK to leave the EU would have the potential to destabilise Europe and increase the likelihood of future conflicts. It would also be likely to encourage the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to start threatening the security of the Baltic states, all of them members of both the EU and NATO, if he thought Europe's pan-national institutions were showing signs of metal fatigue.

The EU has already been buffeted by the Eurozone and migration crises; one more major shock to the system could well mark the beginning of the end. In the words of David Cameron: 'Can we be so sure that peace and stability on our continent are assured beyond any shadow of doubt?' Like the prime minister, I would never be so rash as to make that assumption.

If you're still uncertain how to vote in the referendum, you may be interested in a series of four podcasts I've been making, bringing together a citizens' jury of 10 voters and different experts to discuss some of the main issues. The podcasts are called EUTheJury and they'll be available online next week at euthejury.uk.

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