Podium: Christopher Huhne: Bringing peace to the Dark Continent

From a speech to a Liberal Democrat conference by the Member of the European Parliament for South-east England
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The Independent Culture
THE BIGGEST argument for the European Union is that it ends the conflicts that have been such a terrible scar on our continent's history. This is not just a question of ending the Franco-German rivalry that three times in little more than a century erupted into bloody conflict. The EU has a much wider role now.

As islanders, and therefore as a people with clear-cut borders, we English (yes, Scots, Welsh and Irish may have different perspectives) tend to forget that there is scarcely a clear-cut border anywhere in continental Europe. This has the most far-reaching consequences, for good and ill.

Brussels, for example, is a French-speaking city surrounded by Flemish areas. The Basques live mainly in Spain, but 200,000 live in what they call the northern Basque country in France. There are Italian-speakers in Savoie. There are German-speakers in Italy's Alto Adige, and in western Belgium. And this patchwork quilt of ethnic and language groups becomes even more complex when we look at central and eastern Europe.

There are Ukrainians and Lithuanians in Poland, and Italian-speakers in Slovenia. There are 400,000 Hungarian-speakers in the southern part of Slovakia, and 1.4 million Hungarian-speakers in Romania.

In short, most of continental Europe is a potential tinderbox of ethnic tensions, as even the most cursory glance at Europe's pogrom-infested history shows. Mark Mazower called his recent history of Europe Dark Continent and he is right to have done so.

The EU does two incalculably valuable things. First, it ensures a respect for minority rights. It is not possible to be an EU member without the freedoms of assembly and of speech. The influence of the EU extends to candidate members; as a result of the EU's insistence that Slovakia under Vladimir Meciar's prime ministership did not meet the political criteria for membership, the Hungarian minority were buttressed in their ability to argue for language rights such as the right to be tried in their own tongue. When the Opposition won the subsequent election, with the support of the Hungarian minority parties, Slovakia was again put into the ranks of candidate members. Without the influence of the EU, the experience of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia might have been far more widespread. The EU can be a real bulwark against another Kosovo or Krajina.

The second and most fundamental point about the EU is that it underpins the democratic commitment of all its members and potential members, and this in turn reduces the likelihood of predatory behaviour of one state upon another. The EU has already had a marked success in reinforcing what were initially the fledgeling democracies of Spain, Portugal and Greece, all of which have been dictatorships within the last 30 years.

My parliamentary colleagues from Spain are in no doubt how EU membership has buttressed Catalan minority rights and indeed the democratic commitment of the country as whole, which, after all, suffered a coup attempt as recently as 1981. Enlargement and the extension of membership to Poland, Hungary, Estonia, the Czech Republic and others will create a vast area that is united in its commitment to the values of democracy and human rights.

Even at home on these islands, there is surely a favourable political influence. Is it imaginable that we should have come as far as we have in attempting to resolve the Northern Irish conflict if both the United Kingdom and the Republic had not been EU members, and the hard edge of republican and nationalist traditions had not been dulled by frequent co-operation and contact of their respective champion states?

Any organisation that delivers such prizes is a worthy one. We have never been able to stand aside from the conflicts of the Continent. English history has been about opposing any dominant Continental power - Spain, France and, most recently, Germany. Now we have an organisation that secures precisely those objectives which in the past we were able to secure only through war.