Over the coming days millions of Europeans will vote for anti-EU parties. Not the parties that oppose further integration, but those wanting to scrap the whole thing. This aside, European Parliamentary elections are unlikely to be a great advert for the whole project. They never are. Turnout is shockingly low in many member countries, and most who get to the polls steadfastly refuse to cast their ballots based on the issues at hand, instead casting judgement on their national incumbents.
There are plenty of reasons to be cynical about the EU. It is costly, frequently corrupt, often incompetent and always mind-numbingly bureaucratic and slow. Its largest budget item, the Common Agricultural Policy, is responsible for the deaths of millions overseas, and drastically reduces the wealth of the people who actually pay for it. Despite this, there is a fair case to make that when it comes to inventions improving human happiness European integration outranks such obvious candidates as antibiotics, anaesthetic and really fast broadband.
One could of course point out the various benefits the EU does provide on a daily basis in its defence; ease of movement, free internal trade, a currency less prey to the whims of the trading market. But this is to miss the Amazon for a couple of scraggly rubber plants, although many people do.
The EU stops people being blown up in their beds. It prevents them from cowering in fear as foreign armies roll across their country, averts human rights abuses on a scale our minds simply can’t contemplate. It thwarts, in a word, war.
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It’s easy for to think that the First and Second World Wars were appalling exceptions, that Europe needed no special effort to be at peace. This is simply wrong. Those wars were special, not only because they consumed so much of the continent at once, but because the industrialisation of society and weaponry made them more bloody than their predecessors. Historically for Europe, war is the norm, peace the exception.
Decades of peace across Western Europe are rare. An absence of war lasting 30 years a miracle. Individual nations might have avoided war for much longer periods of time, but they were usually affected by the battles raging outside their borders. Now we’ve 64 years with nothing worse than the Northern Island and Basque conflicts, combined adding to less misery than a single hour on the Somme, and possibly now over. European states have often been at war outside the continent, but even this death toll for Europeans is trending down.
Astonishingly, opponents of the EU sometimes offer the Balkan Wars of the 1990s as evidence the Union doesn’t stop war. Actually, it is the very fact that European Union hadn’t spread to the Balkans at the time that allowed those tragedies to occur. Srebrenica is a perfect example of what would be happening far more widely were it not for the EU.
The correlation between the establishment and spread of the European Union and six decades of peace does not prove causation. Other theories offered include: fear of Russian, Nuclear weapons, the spread of democracy, free trade and rising educational and living standards. Some have been disproved by recent events. Others are part of a positive feedback loop with European integration.
The reason this point is worth making, and repeating, is not simply the hope some Crikey-reading dual citizen won’t vote for a party that wants to bring the whole structure crashing down around everyone’s ears. Its that the job is not yet done.
Eventually the other Balkan states, and perhaps even Turkey and the Caucuses, will follow Slovenia inside, and relax in the knowledge they’re safe from the ancient horror, before the population slowly forgets and becomes free to vote for parties with no idea what they’ve got. Africa and South America are both trying to imitate the model. Progress is slow, but it may come. The more people recognise what has been achieved however, the quicker it may come.