Why do we enjoy peace in Western Europe?

Today is the anniversary of the German invasion of Holland and Belgium, 68 years ago. On the first day of the fighting in Holland around half the small and old Dutch air force was destroyed, Waalhaven airport seized for troop landings, and the bridge taken at Dordrecht. The Dutch army and the small boats of the navy put up stout resistance, but the absence of any functioning tanks and the loss of air cover made resistance difficult. In Belgium, the Germans hurled more substantial forces against the Allies, and destroyed around half the small Belgian air force on the first day. The German forces went on to conquer Holland by May 14, following the devastating bombing of Rotterdam and their threats to do more of the same to other Dutch cities. The attack on Belgium led to the English and French retreat from Dunkirk, and the successful German occupation of the rest of the Low Countries and Northern France.

Some argue today that we have been spared such battles over the last 63 years, thanks to the European Union. I always find this one of the most unpleasant and absurd arguments in the thin armoury of the proponents of a politically integrated Europe. Are they seriously suggesting that, without the EU, modern Germany would be following a warlike course against her neighbours? I see no evidence of any such intentions on the part of modern Germany, which has a very different outlook from the Germany of the Kaiser, or of Hitler. Why do they think so ill of a country with whom they wish to have such close relations? Do they not understand that military matters in the post-war period were mainly determined by NATO, not by the EU? Do they not recall that for much of the second half of the twentieth century Germany remained under four military zones from the occupying powers? The US emerged after 1945 as the world’s main superpower, and was herself committed to maintaining the peace in Europe, should there be a threat to it. As it turned out, the main fear after 1945 was not of German military action, but of cold-war tension between east and west flaring, into hot war across the divide between East and West Germany. As far as the west was concerned, the threat to peace did not come from within the EU, but from the communist world. The only protection against that came from a strong NATO with the US as its main pillar.

On a day when we mourn the loss of life in the blitzkrieg against Holland, and in the early exchanges of the battle for France, we are reminded what a much better place Europe became with the death of German militarism and its replacement by a peace-loving democracy, whose constitution endorsed their wish not to arm for conquest. It is wrong to argue that this came about only because of the EU, when it came about for wholly different reasons. Peace has been maintained in Western Europe for 63 years because the countries no longer wish to fight each other. That has been backed up by the presence and actions of NATO.


  1. Freeborn John
    May 10, 2008

    Hobbes justified the state as the necessary means to protect weak individuals from the strong, saying that without a strong central authority armed with the ‘sword of justice’, individuals would live in a ‘state of nature’ where bandits were free to roam the land raping and pillaging in a ‘war of all against all’. Kant extrapolated (in ‘Perpetual Peace’) this idea to international level arguing for a “League of Peace” (foedus pacificum) or ‘federation of free states’ that would prevent rogue states from warring with one another, but up until 1945 the relationship between states remained essentially that of the ‘state of nature’ because no state would agree to be bound by a strong overarching central authority.

    There are those that believe the EU to be Kant’s federation, but I think it fairer to say the Congress of Vienna system (which aimed to preserve peace in Europe after the Napoleonic wars) is closer to what he had in mind. The League of Nations after WW1 was a similar institution. They did a reasonable job but ultimately failed for lack of what Hobbes called ‘the sword of justice’; the coercive means for force rogue states into compliance. This is a function which the UN Security Council provides today.

    Those who say that the EU prevents war between its members should remember that it (like the League of Nations) lacks the ‘sword of justice’ to force a belligerent member into compliance. The EU can only use QMV or fines to resolve relatively minor disputes between its members. Indeed it is no exaggeration to say that a state can only be an EU member if it already has a working relationship with the other members. The experience of Eastern Europe testifies to this as former countries of the Warsaw Pact only joined AFTER the Cold War ended. Peace between its members is therefore a necessary condition for the EU’s existence rather than a consequence.

    The relationship between the EU and peace is that economic interdependence between its members creates the condition that any member-state which rattles its sabre towards another is threatening the overseas customers – and therefore the prosperity – of its own citizens. However the emergence of a genuine global market now creates the same condition worldwide.

  2. Rose
    May 10, 2008

    The canard that the EU has delivered what NATO did must be being taught officially in schools and universities as it seems to have become orthodoxy. What is really sad is when even ex-servicemen in their 80s come out with it.

  3. Arthur
    May 10, 2008

    I quite agree but when faced with people intent on justifying a political movement, truth always suffers. My list of top ten reasons for peace in Europe go something like this:

    1. Memories of WW1 & WW2 destruction.
    2. Material and moral exhaustion from WW2.
    3. The galvanising effect of the Soviet threat.
    4. The cohesive effect of NATO.
    5. Fear of the BOMB.
    6. Balance of power between East and West.
    7. US leadership, interest and sacrifice.
    8. The Marshall Plan.
    9. Complete and final defeat of German militarism.
    10. French and German desires for peace.

    Only after these more convincing reasons for peace in Europe would I then look to the effects of the EU and its predecessors, but it is a case of the chicken and egg. Condition number 10 had to exist for the EU to be developed, not the other way round.

  4. Derek W. Buxton
    May 10, 2008

    Quite right, NATO and the USA kept the peace. Unfortunately we are now being taken over by the EU, without the bloodshed, which is the only good thing you can say about it. It should be stopped in its tracks now before our Country is totally ruined by the hordes of officials using the european style law, "you are guilty unless you can prove your innocence", no common law anymore.

  5. mike stallard
    May 11, 2008

    Every terrible war causes a longish period of peace in Europe.
    For instance: The thirty years' war gave us reasonable peace until Napoleon really. Napoleon gave us a sort of peace until 1914. 1914, of course, gave us an impossbile peace which led directly to the uncalled for 1939 debacle, after which, we got peace again. Maybe this is running out now.
    The ChristianEuropean consensus is running out. China is in no sense a Western Democracy. It is a frankly Colmmunist state which produces stuff like Burma, Rhodesia, Tibet. India is a lot better, having had a couple of hundred years of civilization. Africa has slid – and is sliding – into savagery. Even South America is going mad – Chavez? Russia is ruled by a traditional despot.
    The EU is derisory – corrupt, weak, run by second raters who cannot make it at home, with no army worth speaking of and no arms industry that can deliver.
    In world history terms, I should have thought, say, the fifth century a.d. was about the right place to look for a parallel.

  6. Fergus
    May 13, 2008

    Perhaps we should be honest and admit that it is quite possible that the existence of the EU may have helped stave off wars in the region, but it is difficult (impossible perhaps) to precisely quantify to what extent. The existence of the EU is an integral part of the patchwork of political and economic variables that contribute to peace in the region.

    The fact that various conditions (such as already well stated by Arthur) were necessary for the formation of the EU, does not logically mean that it cannot now have a stabilising effect. Indeed it is easy to think of many reasons why closer union may help prevent war, for instance, the increased mixing of peoples and cultures that has coincided with the development of the EU (note, not simply due to, but probably aided by), make it much more difficult to demonise those of other nationalities and promote nationalist fervour. Even with careful analysis, to claim that one can really (for pro or anti EU reasons) determine the exact extent of its influences, and especially to do so in such black and white fashion is hubris.

    Ah and special kudos to Mike Stallard for some random rantings..
    'lndia is a lot better, having had a couple of hundred years of civilization' – really, I had no idea that civilisation in India started only 200 years ago.
    'Even South America is going mad – Chavez?' Is that a reference to the notoriously fair and stable South America of the past?

  7. Neil Craig
    May 15, 2008

    "Are they seriously suggesting that, without the EU, modern Germany would be following a warlike course against her neighbours?"

    Germany was able to get the EU to "recognise" the Bosnian & Croatian regimes (led by unrepentent ex-Nazis) & thus deliberately start a series of (words left out) wars against a neighbour whose "territorial integrity & unity" we have all guaranteed to respect, under the Helsinki Treaty. I thus think it is difficult to suggest Germany, without the EU, would have followed a different & less aggressive policy, though perhaps they would have been less successful in eviscerating our wartime ally without EU & NATO help.

  8. mikestallard
    May 16, 2008

    Fergus – yes, I shall answer!
    I am very proud of our English record in India – and with very good reason too. our Civil Service was second to none. All the best brains of the Empire were sucked into India. Our best military brains, too (Wellington?) went there. Also our most daring and outrageous entrepreneurs. There weren't many of us either, but, for 200 years, we gave a completely unknown peace to that sub continent. (OK I do know about the Mutiny and also the racism that went with it).
    The fact that so many Indians today speak our language and emigrate to our country is a huge compliment to us.
    And then we gave Independence (OK I do know that India immediately lapsed into massacre on religious grounds when we walked out).
    Please compare India today with, say, China, to see our legacy.
    India indeed was civilized when we arrived, but to my mind, we improved it a lot. Have you ever compared, say, our record in Canada or Australia with that in India?
    I am very proud of our record there. And, no, this isn't a rant against Indians.

  9. Fergus
    May 20, 2008

    Mike, thanks for the reply.

    Clearly, there are some who'd find the 'couple of hundred years of civilization' offensive or bizarre when talking about a country that had many of the trappings of civilisation long before the UK. Which was really my point. It's worth reflecting on the relatively short duration of our own current period of 'civilisation', especially as regards some of the thinks many now hold dear, such as universal suffrage (1918/28) and relative peace.

    Certainly, we may have improved many things in India, but can we say where she would be today, without our influence? I'm not sure where a comparison of India vs China gets one. There are so many other variables to consider. Is one really better than the other, and can one really trace the differences to British influence, or does it have more to do with rather unpredictable events resulting in (eg) the rise of communism?

    Of course, this is all rather off topic, my initial thought on reading the initial article and the responses to it, was how easy we find it to make firm judgements about things upon which there can be no firm judgements.

  10. mikestallard
    May 20, 2008

    Fergus: Well, let me say a couple of things that, I am sure, everyone can agree on.

    The point I want to keep repeating is that I like the Empire; I think it was good and kindly. So often, people glibly assume that it was just like Hitler's Third Reich or the Japanese Co Prosperity Sphere. It most certainly was not. Even the French and Russians and Spanish and Portuguese and Dutch came a poor second to us as Empire builders.

    The other thing is, I am afraid, that, now we are gone, Christianity is coming under (word left out) attack from the Hindus. Apparently in Eastern India, villages have been wiped out because they are Christian. (Vatican Website today). Hindus wiped out Buddhism. It would be a shame if they did the same to Christianity. Even Liberals must agree that this is wrong.

  11. Fergus
    May 24, 2008

    Fair enough. Our empire probably, on balance, avoided some of the more extreme atrocities of, say, the Belgian attempt. But let's not forget, during British rule, it has been argued convincingly that our imposed system of government led to the unnecessary deaths of millions of Indians (see, for example the admissions of the a secretary of state, Lord Salisbury, or more shockingly the callous disregard for Indian lives of the Viceroy Lord Lytton). These are not small errors.

    Now some Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians have been at each others throats for time immemorial. Christians were once among the worst offenders, English ones included. It's immeasurably sad whenever religion is used to still hatred. I do think it's wrong. BUT, it's not happening simply because we're not there. Indeed (and truly this is not an excuse for such violence) such Christians as are there were probably converted by the British in the first place. Our actions have long consequences.

    Ahh.. thanks to the internet I've found the Lytton quote I was looking for:

    Let the British public foot the bill for its 'cheap sentiment,' if it wished to save life at a cost that would bankrupt India," substantively ordering "there is to be no interference of any kind on the part of Government with the object of reducing the price of food," and instructing district officers to "discourage relief works in every possible way…. Mere distress is not a sufficient reason for opening a relief work.

    This was his response to (British) calls to provide aid to millions dying of famine. A response that was within his means. Good and kindly?

  12. mikestallard
    May 25, 2008

    I do hope that nobody minds us having a private debate on someone else's blog!
    Nobody's perfect – ask any Irishman about the 1848-9 famine.
    What got me thinking was actually Neil Fergusson's book called Empire.
    He does not dodge in any way all that you have said. He does the Amritsar massacre in great detail, for instance.
    But two things redeem the British Empire in India. One is the fact that, when the Japanese were attacking in 1942, the Indians had every single chance to rebel – they had the leaders (Gandhi who was simply plonked in jail without a murmur), the Japanese/Indian army to join, along with the fact that the British were fighting for their lives in Europe. They stood,. nevertheless, firmly by the Empire.
    The second was that, rather than form an alliance with Hitler and the Japanese (Chamberlain, Hess), we British refused to pander to them and, by standing up to them, we lost our money and therefore our Empire. This Fergusson sees as a most noble end. (And, of course, once the Empire was lost, India and Pakistan became Independent.)
    If we were that bad (and we weren't perfect) how come all the Indians and Pakistani/Bangla Deshis came over here to live?

  13. Fergus
    May 25, 2008

    Yes, I always wonder about people who continue random conversations on an unrelated article, and now I’m one of them. Oh well, nobody has complained…

    I confess I've not read the book, it's somewhere on my list though.

    I think the reasons we see lots of people from the subcontinent come to the UK has a lot to do with our Empire, but little to do with how good or bad it was. I think it had much more to do with what was offered at the time of immigration. While immigrants will not be immune to our history, I suspect they judge us much more on what we have to offer in the here an now. If I think of emigrating to Germany (some slight relevance to the article here!) I make my judgement primarily on how I see it now, with only slight colour from the past. To my mind the most obvious reasons for post war immigration were:

    Many Indians received a UK style education, and especially, learnt English. We needed cheap workers and actively encouraged immigration. We had a much higher relative wealth, offering high wages. No visas were needed for commonwealth citizens. And yes, there was glamour in coming to the source of empire.

    Lets consider the Caribbean, where the surviving population were pretty much only there due to the slave trade, which was abominable. This would suggest that people don't come to the UK from the Caribbean because of the (objective) goodness of the empire. However, I will concede that there are many beneficiaries (or victims, depending on your perspective) of the Empire, who definitely hold it in high regard. Clearly it had different effects on different people.

    My experience comes from Sri Lanka, not India. There I see some of the consequences of Empire. Among them are: democracy, bureaucracy, an ailing (but still useful) rail system, and (arguably) a civil war. Despite a spending a not inconsiderable time there, I still cannot decide whether Lanka would be better off with or without the British. The fact we only arrived in Sri Lanka after the Dutch, and were probably significantly more decent occupiers stands in our favour. But then, as victors, we also wrote the history and educated the Sri Lankans on the topic of our goodness!

    As for our decision to stand and fight in WW2. I agree, this was noble and right. However, I also believe it was in our interests to do so, and thus should not be overplayed as representing the inherent goodness of our empire.

  14. mikestallard
    May 26, 2008

    We are now a long way from the leftie position of simply writing off the Empire as a crime against humanity. I think that neither of us believes that tosh.
    Our record in the (barbaric?) Sri Lanka was, I admit pretty mixed up. The conquest seems to have pretty humiliating for us and also pretty bloody too. At least we did encourage their Buddhism though by bringing a leaf from the tree under which the Buddha sat in Northern India!
    People always assume that things were better before the British got there. I am not, myself, sure that this was the case in Sri Lanka, but I am no expert!

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