Today, May 9th, is Europe Day. But what does that really celebrate? Given that the UK’s relationship with Europe has never been more present in the public consciousness – ironically at a time when our future relationship with the EU has never been less clear – it is worth some reflection.
Technically, Europe day is the 67th anniversary of the Schuman Declaration which proposed the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), which was the embryonic form of the European Union that exists today. But in reality, it is really much more than that.
In 1950, much of Europe was still in ruins after the destruction caused by the second World War. The effects of the conflict, the terrible loss of life, the bitterness and resentment were still fresh in the minds and emotions of millions. Robert Schuman, the French Foreign Minister, envisaged a new form of cooperation in Europe that would make another war between historic rivals France and Germany “not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible” through the pooling and managing of coal and steel production. In those days, coal was the principal source of energy and steel was the foundation for industry. He hoped that by merging economic interests, increasing cooperation between nations and improving living standards for their citizens, an enduring peace would be created. It was a plan for a peaceful collaborative long term European future:
Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.
A year later, six countries – France, West Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – signed the ECSC Treaty and Schuman’s idea became a reality. In 1957, these six nations went on to sign the famous Treaty of Rome which brought into existence the European Economic Community.
The preamble of the ECSC Treaty includes two particularly significant statements:
- CONSIDERING that world peace may be safeguarded only by creative efforts equal to the dangers which menace it;
- RESOLVED to substitute for historic rivalries a fusion of their essential interests; to establish, by creating an economic community, the foundation of a broad and independent community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts; and to lay the bases of institutions capable of giving direction to their future common destiny;
In the Community, which later became the European Union, conflicts are settled over a negotiating table or a debating chamber instead of a battlefield. The common market deepens our common interests; student exchange programmes bring young people together to study, not fight. I am reminded of the words of a recent Finnish Prime Minister, who asked “What economic value do you place on an hour of peace?”.
The UK joined in 1973 when it was seen as ‘the poor man of Europe’ and benefited tremendously from being enabled to work together with our neighbouring countries to work in our common interests. The common rules for our common market to provide for fairness, equal opportunities, environmental protection and consumer protection — not an unregulated free-for-all, dominated by powerful market interests.
The past sixty years have seen enormous changes on the continent, and in the wider world, and expansion from the original six members to twenty-eight. The end of the Cold War saw the eventual accession of several former Eastern Bloc countries, the reunification of Germany, and now the EU is a powerful trading bloc of half a billion people.
In 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace prize in recognition of its remarkable achievement of not just preventing wars among nations who had a long history of bloody conflicts going back hundreds of years, but also in building a cooperative alliance with shared values that protected and brought prosperity to its citizens.
At the ceremony to accept the award, Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council rejoiced in how great an achievement this was, but also reminded us that the constantly evolving EU could not afford to take anything for granted:
It worked. Peace is now self-evident. War has become inconceivable. Yet ‘inconceivable’ does not mean ‘impossible’. And that is why we are gathered here today. Europe must keep its promise of peace. I believe this is still our Union’s ultimate purpose. But Europe can no longer rely on this promise alone to inspire citizens. In a way, it’s a good thing; war-time memories are fading. Even if not yet everywhere. Soviet rule over Eastern Europe ended just two decades ago. Horrendous massacres took place in the Balkans shortly after. The children born at the time of Srebrenica will only turn eighteen next year. But they already have little brothers and sisters born after that war: the first real post-war generation of Europe. This must remain so.