|June 1920: Arriving to sign the Treaty of Trianon|
That was the message of Professor Anand Menon of King’s College, London, in a December 2017 piece in Prospect (Remainers need to start telling a better story, December 2017). The economic arguments for Remain, strong though they were, were not being swallowed in the country as a whole. “Forget the complex economic analyses. To shape politics, what is needed is a good story or, even better, a good line,” wrote Menon.
He did not say what he thought that argument should be, but I have one: the European Union has kept the peace in Europe. This is quite an achievement for a continent on which people have been butchering each other with grim enthusiasm ever since the first hairy hominids quarreled over who should have space to paint bison on the cave wall. I can remember, as a young volunteer in Sudan in the 1980s, a conversation with my field director about the ghastly war being waged in the south of the country. My director, who was Sudanese, had no doubt of its brutality. “But don’t forget,” he added, almost as an aside, “that Europeans were deporting people to death camps just 40 years ago.” It was a fair point, and one also made by a much-loved Israeli writer, the late Amos Oz, in his essay Between Right and Right. Don’t wag your fingers at us Israelis and Arabs for our cruelty and stupidity, he wrote; when we finally make peace, we’ll come together much faster than you did. “Our conflict in the Middle East is indeed painful and bloody and cruel and stupid, but it’s not going to take us a thousand years to produce our equivalent of the Euro,” he wrote. “Our bloody history is going to be shorter than your bloody history.”
The European Union was founded to stop this, and by and large it has. It’s an argument not much used by Remainers, who prefer to drone on about tariffs and the regulatory framework. When it does get raised, one is often told, “No, the EU has not kept the peace; NATO has done that.” But NATO is an organisation that has no sanction except a mutual agreement to use force, and such pacts did not keep the peace between the world wars; indeed they did not prevent the first one. The EU can, and the reason for that lies in the nature of the nation-state itself.
The concept of the nation-state is quite new. I suppose one could, if I wished, argue that the England of Elizabeth was the first. For the most part, though, the modern country based on ethnic or linguistic identity only really goes back to 1848, when those identities became a liberal rallying-cry for freedom from traditional power structures. Even then, there were few such countries until 1919. Then the break-up of Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire meant there were, quite suddenly, a number of states that were ethnically defined. By reorganising the continent along these lines, the Paris peace conference profoundly altered its character in much the same way that decolonisation would affect Africa some 40 years later.
But ethnic and linguistic boundaries are rarely clear-cut. After the Paris conference, countries emerged whose territory did not always match their ethnic base, leaving their own people outside their frontiers and enfolding those of other states within their own. Few realise the scale on which this happened in 1919. Perhaps a third of Hungarians wound up living in Slovakia, Transylvania or Yugoslavia, plus a few in what became Austria. Meanwhile many thousands of Slovenians wound up in Austria instead of the new Yugoslavia, which itself went to war with Italy over Trieste. Neither was this confined to continental Europe. Hundreds of thousand ethnic Greeks fled from western Turkey. Millions of people suddenly found an international frontier between themselves and the local tobacconist. In some cases, family members even became different nationalities by accident of birth (the writer Stefan Zweig was Austrian, but his elder brother had been born in Bohemia so assumed Czechoslovak nationality). The legacy of Versailles, the Treaty of Trianon (which defined the borders of Hungary), and other decisions at Paris was that millions of people owed allegiance to countries other than those in which they lived, and almost no country fully accepted the borders it had been given.
All of these potential conflicts festered, and destabilised Europe. What could have helped, with more support, was the League of Nations, which did try to mediate disputes (in one case, the Åland Islands, very successfully). But the only real answer was some way of organising the continent so that people could just wander across frontiers if they wanted to, and there was some sort of overarching structure that protected everyone and prevented conflict – both of which had been the case under Austria-Hungary and Ottoman Turkey, for all their faults.
|Portugal, 1976: Mário Soares takes over (Hans Peters/Anefo)|
This was important. It was absolutely not pre-ordained that these countries would become stable democracies; in fact in the late 1970s Spain seemed very unstable, while in the 1990s the Eastern European states looked as if they might fall into the hands of people like Slovakia's Vladimír Mečiar. The prospect of joining a prosperous, strong alliance was their incentive not to.
Better still, today tens of potential ethnic conflicts are defused because everyone is part of a larger polity that protects them, and if they want to visit relatives or work in the next village and it happens to be in another country, that's not a problem. Ireland is one of the best examples of this, but there are others. The region of Cieszyn Silesia or Těšín Silesia was formerly the Austro-Hungarian region of Teschen; in 1919 the border between the new states of Czechoslovakia and Poland went straight through it, separating communities and causing a shooting war between the two states. Today that border is a benign one between two democracies. Elsewhere, the accession of Slovenia to the EU means that a Slovene who happens to live in Klagenfurt can drive to Ljubljana in two or three hours and should not feel cut off from the “mother state”. That is not to say that s/he will have no grievances, or that an Irish Republican living in the Six Counties will not. But the cause of conflict – a border that separates one from one’s fellows – is substantially defused.
Conversely, the re-emergence of borders will revive such conflicts, not least because it would provide a fertile breeding-ground for populism. This is because of the nature of populism itself. There is no agreed definition of it, but in his 2016 book What is Populism?, Jan-Werner Müller, Professor of Politics at Princetown University, says a populist is
Ireland: Sinn Féin protest against a hard border
someone who claims to identify with “the people”. S/he rejects everyone else. How “the people” are defined is left conveniently vague, but it is made clear that everyone not fitting that description is an outlier, a deviant, or, worse of all, part of an unresponsive “elite” against which s/he is leading a popular rebellion. If someone says to you, “I represent you. You, the people,” you have come home. You have an identity, and have no need to share it with those with whom you do not identify, whether they be Jews, Poles, Gypsies, perceived welfare scroungers, Goths or gays. Even more important in this context, you do not need to share your identity with those who speak another language or are ethnically related to the folks across the border. They are not “the people”. But you are. If someone lives (say) on the wrong side the Polish-Czech border, or the Irish border, you will find them a useful scapegoat. If that border has no real substance, and everyone crosses it daily to shop or to visit friends or relatives, it will be much harder to manipulate people in this way. If on the other hand we return to a world in which power-structures are defined solely by language or heritage, we will walk straight into the populists' trap.
To weaken European unity is to go backwards towards the 1930s. It is to abandon multilateralism and go back to a fractured world of quarrelling, paranoid countries that can be manipulated by the strong, just as Hitler manipulated them in the 1930s – for example by promising Poland the disputed territory of Teschen in 1938 so it didn't oppose his plans for Czechoslovakia, telling Hungary he'd help get them Transylvania back from Romania, and encouraging Romania to join the Axis powers so that it would get Bessarabia (now mostly in Moldova) back from the USSR. It worked like a charm.
To be sure, leaving the EU would make us poorer, but that is only part of it, and it is not even the most important part. The real point is that Europe is an instrument of peace. NATO can only promise to revisit conflict on those who seek it. European unity, however, can remove its causes. It has achieved much in 60 years, but as the British philosopher John Gray has pointed out, history is not an automatic progression towards something better; it can go into reverse. That is why Brexit is an historic blunder. If it weakens the EU, as some on the right (and a few on the left) would like it to do, we will see a vicious lurch backwards through history.
Mike Robbins’s books are available in e-book or paperback from most online retailers, including Amazon (UK and US).