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In Defence of the EU

The European Union has been overwhelmingly successful in achieving its primary mission: guaranteeing peace.

· 12 min read
In Defence of the EU
Oliver Cole via Unsplash

In 2016, when Britain began the chaotic process of leaving the EU, Europe was a fundamentally different place than it is now, just seven years later. There was no COVID; no war in Ukraine; no threat of nuclear apocalypse. Many Europeans looked on in bewilderment at a damp, soggy island that had seemingly shot both itself and Europe in the foot, by abandoning an enormously lucrative free-trade area, and relinquishing its outsized status as the lynchpin of EU relations with the United States, in favour of the uncertain global market.

On the other side of the Channel, many “Remainers” framed Brexit primarily in terms of race. A Brexit Britain was seen as the triumph of “little Englanders” who couldn’t tolerate a post-nationalist society in which Poles and Spaniards had the same rights as them. “This morning, I woke up in a country I do not recognise,” wrote Laurie Penny, in the New Statesman, “prejudice, propaganda, naked xenophobia and callous fear-mongering have won.” “Racism is not a side-effect of the referendum, it is the reason why the referendum ... gained such critical traction,” argued Nasrine Malik in the Guardian.

But in the years since, Brexit has been recast by some liberal-minded commentators as the unmooring of a multi-racial, multi-cultural Britain—one of the least racist countries in the world—from a white, Christian Europe. This is the central theme of Hans Kundnani’s recent article “The Eurocentric Fallacy,” which draws on his 2023 book, Eurowhiteness: Culture, Empire and Race in the European Project. Kundnani thinks that the EU projects an image of cosmopolitanism that ignores the fact that Europe is just one part of an increasingly integrated global society. For Kundnani, the EU is not a postnationalist institution, but a nationalist one: “European” has replaced French, German, Italian, etc. as the common national identity.

In a similar vein, political scientist Neema Begum argues that “the EU’s claim of being ‘united in diversity’ refers more to national and linguistic diversity (and Christian denomination), rather than racial or religious diversity.” And historian Timothy Snyder has claimed that the EU is an explicitly imperial project, established by states such as France, Belgium, and the Netherlands, which were desperate to replace failing colonial empires with a new pan-European one.

So, is the European Union a progressive force for good that has ensured peace between its member states? Or is it a racist and imperialist super-state? Is it a conventional economic and political alliance, which acts out of pragmatic self-interest, or a club for out-of-touch elites wishing to indulge in Great Power fantasies, now that they can no longer do so at the national level? 

To answer that question, it is necessary to go back to the beginning: to the shattered, traumatised Europe of 1945, reeling from the profound suffering that the Nazi regime had inflicted upon tens of millions of people from the Channel Islands to the Caucasus.

The European Union as we know it today was not officially founded until 1993, with the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht, but its foundations were laid in the immediate post-war era, by those political leaders who believed that the best way to secure a lasting peace was to foster closer economic integration. This resulted in the establishment, in 1951, of the European Coal and Steel Community: a purely economic entity, designed to integrate the German economy with that of five other western European states, to prevent the former from rebuilding an independent military-industrial complex.

The next step was the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which resulted in the founding of the European Economic Community (EEC). But the EEC was a long way from today’s EU; it contained just six members—France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Italy, and West Germany—and did not have any defence or foreign policy apparatus. There was no single currency, and no borderless regime for EEC citizens. To cross the frontier from Belgium to France, one had to pass through customs—a requirement that remained in force until 1995.

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The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine is a reminder that history is not linear. Threats that might have seemed tamed can re-emerge. It is therefore important to remember that, in the decades following the Second World War, the two security issues that preoccupied the minds of the Eurocrats of the time were the threat from the Soviet Union, which controlled approximately half of the European continent, and the threat from Germany. In 1952, NATO’s first secretary general, Hastings Ismay, famously remarked that the purpose of the organisation was to “keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down.”

Protecting France was an important goal at the time. Otto von Bismarck had invaded France in 1870; the Kaiser had invaded France in 1914; and Hitler had invaded France in 1940. The French had won the First World War and lost the other two and the country was profoundly traumatised by the experience of repeated German invasions. It was for this reason that President De Gaulle ordered the development of the “force de dissuasion”—France’s independent nuclear deterrent.

After the Second World War, the West German bureaucracy continued to be dominated by men who had rendered faithful service to Hitler. In 1957, the year that the EEC came into being, 77 percent of  the senior officials in the Ministry of Justice were former Nazi Party members. The first Inspector General of the Bundeswehr—the West German armed forces—was Adolf Heusinger, who had been a senior officer in the wartime Wehrmacht. Heusinger had had no compunction about planning the invasions of Poland and France—and by 1944 he had risen to the position of Chief of Staff. He was standing beside Hitler in his East Prussian headquarters on 20 July 1944, when Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s bomb went off.

After the war, Heusinger dabbled in the idea of restoring at least part of the Nazi war machine. In 2014, the Bundesnachrichtendienst (the German foreign intelligence service) revealed that Heusinger had been one of the leaders of a 1949 plot to create a secret army of 40,000 Nazi veterans, including former members of the SS.

So, it is understandable that French and Dutch diplomats feared that the Germans might not have learned their lesson. Who was to say that another charismatic strongman might not rise to power at the ballot box, and begin a process which might lead to yet another general European war?

The creation of the European Coal and Steel Community—which laid the groundwork for economic cooperation between Germany and France—was the first step towards breaking the cycle of violence that had dominated European affairs for decades. Encouraging the German elite to focus on economic co-operation and diplomatic soft power was a pragmatic way to get them to abandon Bismarck’s militaristic dictum of “Eisen und Blut” (iron and blood).

Economically, the EU is still a long way from any idealistic vision of shared prosperity—even for its own citizens. A German friend once joked that “what we used to do with Messerschmitts, we now do with money”—and there is some truth to that. The post-2008  financial sanctions against debt-ridden Greece were largely cooked up in Berlin, by politicians terrified of EU-wide hyperinflation. This had terrible consequences for the Greek people; but those consequences would have been far worse if the German elite had employed “Eisen und Blut” instead. In that sense, the cycle of violence that existed from 1870 to 1945 has been decisively broken.

Furthermore, the EEC never had the capacity to become a rival super-state to the United States and the Soviet Union. It did not have a military arm; security was taken care of at the NATO level, as all six founding member states were NATO members. It was only when Ireland joined in 1973 that the EEC gained a member who was not part of the alliance. Even today, the EU’s military capacity is limited. It has eighteen battlegroups of 1,500 troops each, but it cannot deploy them without a unanimous vote of the European Council. This allows a neutral nation, such as Ireland or Austria, to block a deployment that it considers incompatible with the EU’s ideals. It would be very difficult for the EU to directly involve itself in an expeditionary war of the kind that Britain and the United States have routinely fought since 1945.

Another anti-EU argument is that the bloc’s post-imperial origin story is largely false. For example, in an article titled “Eurafrica Incognita: The Colonial Origins of the European Union,” Peo Hansen and Stefan Jonsson approvingly quote Ghana’s first president Kwame Nkrumah, who likened the EEC’s foundational document, the 1957 Treaty of Rome, to the 1885 Berlin Conference, at which the European powers divided up the African continent amongst themselves.

Yet only three of the six founding members of the EEC were colonial powers when the treaty was signed. Italy had lost its empire due to its defeat in the Second World War; Luxembourg had never had one; and West Germany was an entirely new state. During the negotiation process, the French did press for the incorporation of their colonies into the EEC—but were firmly opposed by the Germans and the Dutch. The point became moot within a year, when President De Gaulle ushered in the decolonization process. The war in Algeria—which the French considered to be part of France—continued until 1962. But it nearly tore France apart. For De Gaulle, the lesson was clear: the empire had to be relinquished.

Portugal continued to fight its colonial wars until 1975—but was not allowed to join the EEC until 1986. Spain maintained colonial possessions in Africa during General Franco’s dictatorship, but it was not accepted until 1986 either. In both cases, the transition to democracy was a precondition of membership.

Furthermore, many current EU states—including Ireland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia—are not former colonial powers but formerly colonized nations. Timothy Snyder’s essay on “Europe’s dangerous creation myth” ignores these countries. Snyder argues that Germany took the lead in the European integration process because it was “the first European power to indisputably lose a colonial war—World War II.” This is nonsense. Britain lost the Irish War of Independence in 1921 and Italy lost its six-year colonial war against Ethiopia when Emperor Haile Selassie returned in triumph to Addis Ababa in May 1941.

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Kundnani also sees the EU as a neocolonialist project, designed to keep Muslim nations such as Turkey at bay. It is certainly true that fear of the “Turkish hordes” has been used to justify keeping that country at arm’s length from Europe. In 2004, Frits Bolkestein, a Dutch European Commissioner, voiced the fear that if Turkey were granted full EU membership, “Europe would implode.” Similar messaging was also used by the “Leave” campaign during the Brexit referendum. In June 2016, Nigel Farage was photographed in front of a billboard titled “BREAKING POINT,” which showed a queue of Muslim asylum seekers at the Slovenian border. The implied message was that the EU was not a fortress, but an open door—a door that British people could not close, unless they voted “Leave.”

But there are far more compelling reasons for denying Turkey EU membership. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has governed the country for twenty years, and his rule has become increasingly autocratic. According to Human Rights Watch, “Erdoğan has set back Turkey’s human rights record by decades, targeting perceived government critics and political opponents ... and hollowing out democratic institutions.”

Then there is the issue of Cyprus, which had been a divided island for fifty years. The Republic of Cyprus is in the EU; the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which came into being when the Turkish army invaded that part of the island in 1974, is not even recognised by the EU. The EU is bound to support the rights of a member over those of a non-member—as it did after Brexit, when it backed Ireland in the dispute with Britain over Irish border and customs regulations.

It is true that the EU is a European club—just as the African Union is an African club, and the Arab League is an Arab club. But the EU doesn’t have to be exclusively white and Christian. Albania (a Muslim-majority state) was given EU candidate status in 2014 and entry negotiations began in March 2020. Bosnia, also a Muslim-majority state, might also one day join.

When the original European Coal and Steel Community came into being, all six of its members were recovering from devastation after 1945. While we often focus, rightly, upon the horrors of the Holocaust, we should not forget that millions of ordinary Europeans were also enslaved by the Nazis. Many were forced to work in armaments factories, under appalling conditions, or become prostitutes. German civilians also suffered terribly. Millions were “dehoused” as part of Air Marshal Arthur “Bomber” Harris’ terror campaign. When the war ended, 65 million people in Europe had been displaced. In 1957, when the EEC came into being, around 157,000 of them had still not found a permanent home.

The original EEC was a pragmatic organization. It had to be, to facilitate the rebuilding of Europe. Just as the original 1951 United Nations’ Refugee Convention only gave protection to “European refugees,” the EEC’s initial focus was rather insular. (In 1967, the Refugee Convention was amended to remove the geographical limitations on refugee status.) Even today, the EU does not allow citizens completely unfettered movement, even within its borders. If a Belgian citizen moves to Bulgaria—or vice versa—they are required, under Directive 2004/38/EC, to obtain employment within three months or show that they have sufficient financial means to live without employment.

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In his recent essay for the Guardian, Kundnani accuses the European Union of developing its own form of American-style exceptionalism. When EU leaders pontificate about integration, Kundnani argues, they are mistaking “Europe for the world.” Recent events in European politics, however—including the popularity of Georgia Meloni and Geert Wilders—indicate that there is limited appetite for some kind of Brussels-led progressive New World Order.

As Ralph Leonard has argued, the EU prioritises European citizens over Commonwealth citizens. Some British-Indians voted “Leave” on the grounds that the freedom of movement enjoyed by EU citizens and denied to Indians was a slight to the latter, given India’s membership of the Commonwealth, and the immense sacrifices made by Indian soldiers during the Second World War. Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans, Canadians, Kenyans, and others could make similar arguments.

But since Brexit, Britain has not replaced free movement for EU citizens with a comparable Commonwealth scheme, though there are a number of bilateral agreements that favour certain nations. Australians under thirty-five can undertake a three-year “working holiday” in the UK, but do not have anything approaching the rights that EU citizens formally held.

Citizens of any Commonwealth country may join the British armed forces, but often face significant hurdles after their enlistment—unlike members of the French Foreign Legion, who are entitled to French citizenship after five years’ service. A recent court case brought by a group of Fijian veterans has highlighted just how difficult it can be for Commonwealth soldiers to obtain settled status—and even access to the National Health Service (NHS).

Enrolling in a British university remains one of the easiest methods of entering the UK, and subsequently staying on. But the process is expensive and therefore exclusionary. According to the Times Higher Education Supplement, international students are likely to pay £10,000–26,000 in annual fees. By contrast, the fees for international students in most EU countries are admirably low and, like Britain, several EU states have graduate residence programmes, that provide immigrants with a pathway to settled status, upon completion of their degrees.

However, the notion that the European Union is held together by a shared investment in “Euro-whiteness,” as Hans Kundnani argues, is quite mistaken. It suggests that the EU is demographically dominated by a super-majority of pale-skinned Anglo-Saxons who share Judeo-Christian values. This is absurd. The EU is home to 38 million people who were not born in any of its member states. In addition, Europe’s indigenous population is neither mono-ethnic nor monocultural. It encompasses groups as linguistically, culturally, and religiously diverse as the Irish, Maltese, Portuguese, Greek, Catalan, and Basque. And, as Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has tragically demonstrated, the idea that people who share the same skin colour will share the same priorities and goals is simply untrue.

But while the war in Ukraine may grind on for many more months—or even years—along the Union’s eastern border, with profound consequences for millions of people, it will not lead to armed conflict between EU member states. The European Union has been overwhelmingly successful in achieving its primary mission: guaranteeing peace. The Russian invasion of Ukraine is just one of a number of profound shocks—the 2008 recession, Brexit, the COVID pandemic—that have stress-tested this mission in recent years. It has held up amid the chaos. There has not been another world war. War between two EU member states is now unthinkable. And that, at least, is something to be profoundly grateful for.

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