It’s probably too early to count our chickens, but the announcement of
a ceasefire by ETA (Thursday, item 14) may well represent something truly
remarkable – the first time Western Europe has been free from war.

The significance of this is easy to miss if you’re not used to looking
too far back in history. For a reality check, pick any decade in
history before the 1950s and see just how much violence and destruction
has bedevilled the area now covered by the European Union.

It’s hard to find a ten-year period without a major war, and impossible
to find one without lesser conflicts. Yet for the fifty-odd years since
the formation of the EU’s predecessor, the worst any member state has
had to put up with has been the Irish troubles and the Basque conflict.

Horrific as these have been, the combined death toll of each is less
than a single day of the Somme or the Blitz. And now, it seems, they
may both be over.

We’ve got so used to a peaceful Europe, we’ve forgotten what a miracle
it is. We’re also so used to all the other things the European Union
does that we forget the original reason it was created – to break the
cycle of wars between Germany and France.

Now at this point it is worth noting that the EU is riddled with
corruption, mired in astonishingly cumbersome bureaucracy and not
nearly as democratic as it should be. Most seriously, the Common
Agricultural Policy is one of the primary causes of global poverty.
Without the EU, many member states would operate similarly ridiculous
farm policies, but the collective effect would probably be reduced.

Yet all this pales to insignificance compared to the achievement of
ending many thousand years of violence. The critics of the EU have
plenty of alternative explanations for this unprecedented period of
peace. Fear of the Soviet Union, nuclear weapons, democracy, economic
success and expanded trade have all been raised as alternatives.

Democracy and high living standards are certainly prophylactics against
war, but since the existence of European-wide structures has done much
to promote both, it is meaningless to highlight the parents of peace
while ignoring the grandparent.

Meanwhile, the notion that only fear of the Russians kept the Germans
and French from each others’ throats looks more discredited with each
passing year. The structures that evolved out of the Franco-German coal and steel
pact have not managed to keep member states out of overseas conflicts.
From Algeria to Iraq, wars involving Western European nations have
caused much suffering, and failure to save the former Yugoslavia was
particularly disappointing.

Despite this, the EU represents perhaps the best model the world has
had for bringing an end, not just to war in Europe, but to war
everywhere. As the residents of Belfast discovered, there’s not a lot
of point killing people over whether one is ruled from London or
Dublin, when a fair chunk of the decisions will be made in Brussels

Organisations such as the African Union are not a patch on the
original, and will find it hard going as long as many of their member
states are not democracies. Nevertheless, peace in Europe makes
credible, for perhaps the first time since humans descended from the
trees, that war may be consigned to history.

And if we can do that, eliminating poverty and overcoming environmental
disasters should prove simple. The ETA ceasefire is a small step, but
one well worth celebrating.