Will the EU referendum mark the demise of post-war European stability?

We’ve been at relative peace here in Europe for seven decades – we have lulled ourselves into thinking that stability and peace on our continent is the natural state of affairs. Tragically it isn’t

David Keys
Sunday 19 June 2016 11:02
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The European Parliament
The European Parliament

Most of the EU referendum debate has focused on the economy and immigration. But there is an elephant in the room – unfortunately a very big and ugly one – that hasn’t featured in detail at all.

Will our referendum on June 23rd be seen by future historians as the event which triggered the end of the relatively peaceful and stable post-war period on our continent?

Are we about to deliberately scuttle the post-war European settlement which has, in one form or another, helped keep the peace on our continent (in effect, as NATO’s European political associate) for most of the past 70 years?

Are we in fact sleep-walking back to the first half of the 20th century when our continent was, on the whole, a divided unstable political basket-case?

Brexit: Iceland divided on UK's decision

All too many people seem to have forgotten (or have chosen to ignore) what a dysfunctional Europe actually looked like. It wasn’t a pretty sight. To undermine our continent’s stability and security by voting Leave would be like playing Russian roulette with our and our continent’s future.

We’ve been at relative peace here in Europe for seven decades and have been relatively unthreatened by external political/military forces for more than a quarter of a century. We have lulled ourselves into thinking that stability and peace on our continent is the natural state of affairs. Tragically it isn’t.

And here’s where a brief look at the historical record is spine-chillingly instructive:

The past five centuries’ conflict statistics tragically reveal our continent’s propensity for rivalry and war – and demonstrate, with chilling clarity, the crucial need for the continuation of pan-European cooperation.

The 16th century endured no less than ten major European wars, each involving, on average, seven countries/states. At least four million people lost their lives, equal to around five per cent of total average European population at that time.

During the 17th century, our continent was convulsed by only three major conflicts (each involving, on average, 12 countries) – but they were each long and particularly violent (over ten million deaths in total – equal to around ten per cent of average population at the time) and wreaked havoc for 44 per cent of the century.

In the “long” 18th century (1700 to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815), nine major wars, each involving, on average, 13 countries, were responsible for the deaths of 9.5 million people, equal to some six per cent of average population at the time.

Thanks, in part, to a continent-wide cooperation system (the so-called “Concert of Europe”), the extended post-Napoleonic 19th century (1815 to the outbreak of the First World War in 1914), experienced massively reduced levels of warfare in Europe, in stark contrast to the suffering of many other parts of our planet.

In those 99 years, there were only two really big European wars (with a total of up to a million people losing their lives – equivalent to substantially less than one per cent of average population at the time), each involving, on average, just three countries.

But, following decades in which European cooperation had gradually weakened, 1914 saw a complete disintegration of European stability and the start of an epoch of unprecedentedly violent and lethal warfare. Over the next 31 years, the two world wars were responsible for the deaths of 90 million people, some 65 per cent of whom died in Europe (equal to around 13 per cent of our continent’s average population in those decades).

Without doubt, the clearest political implication of all those statistics is that our continent’s peoples (including the British) need to cooperate in shaping their destiny – or they will tragically discover how painful it is to hang apart.

Over those five centuries, only the 1815-1914 era (much of it associated with the Concert of Europe) and the period since 1945 (associated, of course, with the EU and its immediate predecessors) were relatively peaceful. For the rest of that twenty generation timespan, our continent has ripped itself apart with monotonous regularity and has sometimes also been a target for external or partially external invasions.

Because we are only 20 miles off the coast of continental Europe – and are therefore a geopolitically integral part of our continent, we have always been sucked into European calamities. It is therefore in Britain’s overwhelming interest to play our full part in ensuring that Europe remains stable, and that calamities do not occur. Prevention is far less painful (for us and our continent) than a cure.

The fundamental political fact that we ignore at our peril is that, in the absence of politically gravitational forces pulling our continent together, centrifugal ones will sadly and inevitably rip it apart.

If we vote to leave Europe on June 23rd, we will unwittingly be encouraging other nations to follow suit. There are already demands for British style EU referenda in France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. Extreme right-wing, ultra-nationalist, anti-EU forces have been on the rise in several European countries – and Brexit will massively bolster and encourage them.

The EU referendum debate has so far been characterised by bias, distortion and exaggeration. So until 23 June we we’re running a series of question and answer features that explain the most important issues in a detailed, dispassionate way to help inform your decision.

What is Brexit and why are we having an EU referendum?

Does the UK need to take more control of its sovereignty?

Could the UK media swing the EU referendum one way or another?

Will the UK benefit from being released from EU laws?

Will we gain or lose rights by leaving the European Union?

Will Brexit mean that Europeans have to leave the UK?

Will leaving the EU lead to the break-up of the UK?

What will happen to immigration if there's Brexit?

Will Brexit make the UK more or less safe?

Will the UK benefit from being released from EU laws?

Will leaving the EU save taxpayers money and mean more money for the NHS?

What will Brexit mean for British tourists booking holidays in the EU?

Will Brexit help or damage the environment?

Will Brexit mean that Europeans have to leave the UK?

What will Brexit mean for British expats in Europe?

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