Europe, after the war

In 1945, much of Europe lay in ruins. The previous 31 years had exhausted its material and human resources, as well as killing millions of its citizens. The continent that had epitomised civilization at the start of the century, had become a devastated pastiche of it. Europe had incubated and indulged one of the most evil regimes in history. Half the continent was under totalitarian dictatorship. Europe had forfeited its moral authority to direct the affairs of the world.  

The blogs of the past two weeks have attempted to give a flavour of how those 31 years were experienced in one country, France. They imply the enormity of the task after 1945 to rebuild what had been destroyed and, in crucial aspects, to replace it altogether and re-imagine it. That task needed to be undertaken, in one way or another, in every European country.

The idealists who dreamed of the framework that has become the European Union (as I will call it, whatever its name at the time) were visionaries. Whatever one thinks of the organisation now, whether one thinks Britain should have chosen to leave it or not, those idealists should be saluted. They were determined that never again should Europe be able to tear itself apart in the way it twice and so recently had. They conceived the idea of a united states of Europe, and they resolved to use all available means to achieve it.

Those of us who have enjoyed the benefits of their vision should be profoundly grateful to them. We are alive. We have enjoyed a lifetime of peace and prosperity.

The ideal of a new Europe was founded on two objectives. The immediate one was to create a collection of stable, prosperous, independent nation states, with democratic governments, working harmoniously with each other. The longer-term aim was for those nation states to make the democratic choice of progressive movement towards unification under some form of federal government.

The immediate objective was the priority. How could it not be in 1945? Any difficulties or contradictions implicit in the second objective could be resolved later.

We take for granted realities that were once tenuous, if they existed at all. It is now assumed that western Europe consists of a collection of stable democracies. That wasn’t the case in 1945, or not reliably so, even in countries that had notionally been democratic for decades.

In France, there were 33 governments in the 21 inter-war years. None had any authority. Twenty-seven of them lasted less than a year. After the war, until de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic in 1958, there were 27 governments in 13 years. During some of that time, the Communists were the largest single party, a Communist takeover was feared, and a military coup was regularly expected. Without de Gaulle, who knows what would have happened.

In Germany, in the 15 years between the end of World War I and Hitler’s assumption of power, there were 15 governments. In Italy, in the four years between 1918 and Mussolini’s assumption of power, there were seven governments. Of the founding members of the EU, only the Benelux countries enjoyed relative political stability between the wars. Beyond them, Spain was a dictatorship until 1975, Portugal until 1974, Greece until 1974 and the Communist bloc countries until 1989.

If democracy now seems natural, established and unchallenged in Europe, in historical terms that is a very recent achievement. It did not seem that way in 1945, and there was no certain prospect that it would become so. In no other European country, apart from the Netherlands and in Scandinavia, does democracy have the roots that it has in Britain. It would be rash to assume that it is now so established everywhere that it cannot be overthrown.

Still, the first objective of the founders of the EU appears to have been triumphantly achieved. The second, however, has not. There has been no democratic choice of progressive movement towards unification under a federal form of government, at least as most of us would care to define ‘democratic choice’.

The conflict between an ever-closer union and national democracy has been at the heart of the European project for decades. Every European leader has been aware of the fact. None has openly admitted it. Instead, the strategy has been to avoid the issue and to nudge the member countries ever closer to a unity from which there is no escape, without resort to a democratic process if it can be avoided.

Now one country has said that enough is enough.

I believe that is the true meaning of Brexit. There are always specific issues that become the excuses: mainly immigration, in our case. I think most people know that immigration is not solely a consequence of the EU, and will not cease to be an issue when we are outside the EU. But the referendum was an opportunity, and possibly the only opportunity, to avoid being swept into a federal Europe without a vote.

When David Cameron said, during the campaign, that peace in Europe could be at risk if Britain voted to leave the EU, he was widely derided. Was he suggesting that the consequence would be war? What an absurd idea! He wasn’t saying that. He was pointing out that there was a possible correlation between the gradual coalescence of European nations and the fact that there had been peace between them for 70 years. He was right to say it, and it was alarming that so many people thought otherwise.

A Daily Telegraph journalist called Cameron’s remarks ‘a classic example of the Orwellian big lie’. He went on to point out sarcastically that ‘it is, of course, NATO, not the EU, that has kept the peace’. How does he suppose that NATO is able to keep the peace, or to exist at all, without EU member states working willingly together? Does he think that NATO could even have existed between the wars?

Democracy has become a deity. Anything that is perceived as undemocratic is automatically wrong. But which is preferable, national democracy or peace? A false choice, you might say. But perhaps it isn’t altogether a false choice.

National democracy has proved no guarantor of peace. The age of democracy in the world, even if much of the democracy was imperfect at the time, has produced two world wars, and many lesser ones. Over time, the nature of democracy has changed. No one can sensibly say that the character and direction of Britain, or of any other country, is under full national control. It no longer is, if it ever was. A welter of global factors are the principal determinants of what happens here. Britain will not take back control after it leaves the EU. The control is long gone. The question is what form of lack of control, and what form of a trammelled national democracy, we want.

Should the ideal of nation state democracy still have primacy in our pantheon? Might it be better to accept (another) diminution of control in favour of participation in a wider democracy? Might the EU fanatics of the past 70 years have been wise to prioritise peace and unity over a literal interpretation of democracy? Might they have been wiser to tell us what they were doing, and to accept the challenge of defending it?

Questions, questions. But not ones that have ever had an answer. Too late for Britain now, but the questions now need to be asked, even more urgently, in Europe.