Peace in Europe: a precious legacy demeaned

Jill Segger opened her article on Ekklesia’s website by recalling David Cameron’s suggestion that Brexit could put European peace at risk and Boris Johnson, ridiculing him with a reference to Germany crossing the border into France and continues:

This kind of political vaudeville demeans the very concept of peace making and keeping, of conflict avoidance and resolution, of memory, sorrow and of the responsibility which we all bear for making it possible for populations to live and flourish in freedom from war. It is historically and morally illiterate and is contrived to sow fear.

I am old enough to have experienced the shadow of the war which ended in the decade before I was born. As a young child, I saw around me men – still in youth or early middle-life – whose bodies had been fractured by war. I had too, a child’s incomplete awareness of the ruin wrought in minds and souls by physical horror and tormented consciences.

The founding fathers of what was to become the European Union belonged to that wounded generation and to the one which was formed by the war of 1914-18. Churchill, Schuman, De Gaulle, Adenauer, Heath and their younger contemporaries, were formed by the two huge conflicts of the 20th century which had their origins, if not their ultimate boundaries, in Europe. For these men, ‘never again’ had a meaning which we must neither lose nor cheapen in pursuit of lesser goals.

As the last generation to have experienced the horror of continental war passes, so too may our understanding of the irenic agency of sharing economic power and a degree of sovereignty. Ties of shared interest, cooperation and knowledge are the enemies of that concept of ‘otherness’ which may be exploited for alienation and hostility in times of difference. It is in the spreading of that shared interest that we may best maintain what was envisaged in the Schuman Declaration of May 1950.

That vision realised that coal and steel – the raw materials of weapons production – were key to ensuring that nation states which had long seen their military-industrial complexes as the tools of competing empires, would instead develop a common interest. Battleships and bombers were to be beaten into BMWs and railways. Thus the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EU, gave us the connection to sustainable peace in words which are still relevant almost seven decades later: “The pooling of coal and steel production… will change the destinies of those regions which have long been devoted to the manufacture of munitions of war, of which they have been the most constant victims.”

Of course Europe has, during those decades, been subject to incidences of failure which mark the human condition. Armed conflict has occurred in the former Yugoslavia, Ukraine and Crimea. But these are not EU states and though a Europe committed to peace must consider its responsibilities and its potential here, let us not lose sight of the fact that it is truly impossible to imagine France and Germany ever at war again.

It is this seed of cooperation sown in the psyche of Europe which has inspired and kept peace. Steel and coal were the engines of moral movement among millions of Europeans. That role was not, and never will be, fulfilled by Nato. A military alliance, requiring its members to contribute two per cent of their GDP for armaments, is as for removed from that redemptive vision of changing the destinies of nations, once bounded by the making and usage of weaponry, as it is possible to conceive. It can never be an instrument of peace.

Peace is not just the absence of war. It is the choice to strive for understanding and solidarity, to root out injustice and hatred in ourselves and others, to make policies which will enable the sowing of peace and to cultivate societies which will sustain it. This is our legacy from statesmen who had seen their continent sundered and deformed by total war twice in the space of 25 years.

And it is far too precious an inheritance to be demeaned by the ahistoric and morally inadequate knockabout of shallow, opportunistic politicians.

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