In debating whether or not to remain in the European Union, the British electorate will have to consider a broad range of issues. Presumably, in the coming months we'll argue back and forth about economics, social policy, trade and all the rest of it - it'll be all the fun and games inherent in a referendum campaign, even if we Scots may be a little full by this point. However, it would be remiss of us, as an informed and educated electorate, to focus only on the EU's obvious attributes and forget what is, arguably, the EU's biggest success story; the creation of a sustainable peace in Europe, which is a far more recent phenomenon than many will realise.
In order to understand just how successful the European Union has been in this regard, we need look back over just three generations. I'll use my own family as an example, if I may? My grandparents are just old enough to remember the aftermath of the Second World War, my parents were roughly my age at the height of the Cold War, which itself came to an end when I was four or five years old (depending on your definition of "the end") - and so I have little memory of it. The memories of three generations of my own family offer a helpful metaphor for the recent history of our continent and the EU's success story.
My grandparents remember the people of Europe living with the horrific aftermath of socialism - of the national or Leninist flavours. My parents remember such bizarre entities as East Germany and the Berlin Wall, as well as the frightening televised reports of the nuclear attack that, at the time, seemed imminent. If you've ever seen the excellent Threads, a TV movie made by the BBC and broadcast in 1984 (the irony of the year is, of course, lost on no-one), then you will be aware of just how real the threat of all-out war seemed at the time.
I was born at the end of the nineteen-eighties and as such enjoyed the relatively bland and uneventful 1990's as my formative years. In stark contrast to the previous two generation of my own family, I have never known a European continent under the real threat, or the reality, of violence. To me, and my generation, the phrase "war in the European Theatre" is as unfamiliar as "James Bond played by Joe Pasquale". It's just not going to happen and we all know it isn't.
I've made the argument that the existence of the European Union has made Europe a peaceful place before and the response, from eurosceptic quarters, is predictably the same. They habitually point to NATO as the 'real' reason for peace in Europe and suggest that, in fact, the EU had little or nothing to do with Europe's lasting peace.
The curious thing about this particular argument is that the eurosceptics are, in part, correct. NATO has done sterling work in enforcing peace in Europe - but that is exactly what it has done. The existence of an 'all-for-one and one-for-all' military alliance, keeping watch across the continent has enforced what might be called a 'negative peace'. This is characterised as the uneasy peace of mutual deterrence where each side is either kept in check by the power of the other (a la The Cold War) or when peace is maintained by the superiority of one side's firepower (a la the alleged American hegemony). It is a situation that is better only than war but not conducive to lasting progress.
The success of the European Union has been in establishing a 'positive peace'. This kind of peace is established when different nations, groups of people or organisations become so vested in the interests of one another, and dependent on mutual cooperation, that the prospect of conflict becomes remote to the point of impossibility.
This is what the European Union has done for the countries of Europe. As part of Europe, we have created a network of institutions, agreements, practices and operations that depend so much on our collaboration and shared efforts that the possibility of violent conflict is no more. There is, of course, ideological conflict, what else could happen when the Brits, the Germans, the Spanish and the Dutch get into the same room to talk politics? But ideological conflict is a good thing; it helps refine ideas, it puts them to the test and prevents stagnation. It is constructive; but violent conflict is not and it is the latter kind of conflict that the European project has helped to make virtually impossible.
Just over one hundred years ago Europe was a mess of entangling and contradictory alliances, which ultimately led to war. Less than eighty years ago the continent again erupted in relentless nationalism, violence and death. It is often forgotten that, as Europeans, we have gone from eyeing one another with suspicion, at best, to being part of the same club with the same interests in a remarkably short length of time - we have peace and cooperation where before there was conflict and cynicism. It is also worth emphasising that Britain has played a key role in all of it.
I, personally, think that this history is worth celebrating and should be at the forefront of the decision we in the UK have to make. The EU has a Nobel Prize to it's name and for good reason; after decades of fighting that some of those still alive can remember followed by the omnipresent threat of annihilation remembered by many more - Europe is peaceful and we need to remember how novel that is, why it is an achievement and, most importantly, what led to it being so normal that we don't even question it any more. Namely, the structures, organisations and processes of the European Union and Britain's role in all of those.
N.B. For a more extensive version of this argument please see John McCormick's excellent, "Why Europe Matters: The Case for the European Union".