Never again

This week is the hundredth anniversary of the assassination of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand in Vienna which triggered the start of the First World War.

Two highly symbolic events to mark it stand out: one by governments in Ypres and one by civil society organisations in Sarajevo.

Herman van Rompuy’s initiative to convene the heads of state and government of the 28 EU members in Ieper (Ypres) is how governments will commemorate the anniversary. The sight of all 28 national leaders standing together at the Menin Gate while the Last Post is being played will be a powerful symbol of how far Europe has progressed since then. Few who died or survived those awful events could have imagined that reconciliation would ever allow such a joint event.

Just before, the European Broadcasting Union is organising a concert in Sarajevo, and remarkably it’s the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra which will be playing there! It will take place in the celebrated library that has recently been renovated from the devastation of the 1990s wars of disintegration of Yugoslavia, and which is adjacent to the site of the assassination.

The broadcasting union asked me to be a keynote speaker at their presentation of these events last week. I spoke of the original motivation behind the creation of the European Union, which was indeed about the wars, saying “never again!”.

Almost every generation from the fall of the Roman Empire until 1944 slaughtered each other on the battlefields of Europe. We simply had to find a better way of doing things. The hope after the First World War was the horrors of war would make it inconceivable to go to war again — the “war to end wars”. But within a generation, Europe was at it again. It was in the anti-fascist resistance movements that the lesson was learned. Altiero Spinelli, when still a prisoner on the island of Ventotene, wrote in 1941 already that if, after the war, we simply re-established the system of totally sovereign nation-states in shifting alliances, then one day we would have war again. He advocated the creation of a structure bringing the countries of Europe together in a binding structure in which common interests could be developed. Of course, we still have robust arguments — but we have them across a debating chamber or a negotiating table. It’s somewhat better!

It’s clear from the very first European treaty, the ECSC, that this was the original motivation for the European Union. The treaty preamble is highly resonant:

resolved to substitute for age-old rivalries the merging of their essential interests…to create the basis for a community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts

In an era when the more pragmatic reasons, and indeed the selfish reasons, for having a European Union are to the fore, and when there is much debate about the policies and priorities of the Union, this original motivation is often taken for granted or even forgotten. Yet we do so at our peril. We need only look just beyond the borders of the EU — in Ukraine, the Middle East or North Africa (or recently in the former Yugoslavia) — to see how precious is the stability is that we have created here.

So it was timely of the Nobel prize committee to confer the Nobel Peace Prize on the European Union two years ago. It would seem that some people outside the EU have a better perspective on its achievements than some of us inside it!

And when we squabble over the EU budget or other minor irritations, it is worth recalling the words of (I think) a recent recent Finnish Prime Minister, who asked “what economic value do you place on an hour of peace?”.

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