We have seen some remarkable claims about history in the EU Referendum and I am sure that we will see a few more before the vote actually takes place. Most of them are pretty dubious with virtually no context or evidence. However, history does have some lessons for us and does inform the current debate and so is worth looking at. In doing so, though, I am not going to look at each ridiculous claim – though I might reference one or two. Instead, I am just going to look at things overall.
The History of Europe
For the last 1500 years, the history of Europe really has been one of conflict and competition. This has had some positive impacts as it has driven innovation but it has had a staggering human cost. This continent and its states have been warring for most of that period with the last 70 years standing out as exceptional.
In the modern age of the last two hundred and fifty years, we have seen many devastating conflicts: the first worldwide war of 1756-63 (the Seven Years War), the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars of 1792-1815, Crimean war of 1853-56, Austro-Prussian War of 1866, Franco Prussian War of 1870-71, the First World War (1914-18) and finally the Second World War (1939-1945). The last one being the granddaddy of them all leaving the continent in ruins and Britain virtually bankrupt. It was in the context of this history that the original European Communities were set up.
After the Second World War
The first community was the European Coal and Steel Community, established in 1951. This seems an odd thing to set up except in the context of the war that had just finished. By linking together supervision of the Coal and Steel industries of Germany and France – key materials needed for waging war – it was established with its express aim to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.” Yes, there were other reasons, but that was foremost in their minds and that thinking continued in the formation of the EEC and subsequently the EU.
Of course, there were many other reasons for peace in Europe, the threat of the Soviet bloc and the NATO alliance built against it undoubtedly helped as well; but the ECSC and EEC were definitely a component. Since most people today were born after the war, very few people think about it; but it is fair to mention both these goals and the fact that the subsequent period has been the most peaceful in Europe for 1500 years.
So does the EU prevent conflict? Intertwined institutions and economies and the mixing together of peoples so that they can less easily be demonised certainly makes it harder; but it’s no guarantee. The important thing to note here, though, is we are talking about probabilities, not absolutes – which makes a difference from the official campaigns! The integration of economies in Europe has made their detachment – needed to wage war – difficult and so has reduced its likelihood. Would totally sovereign democratic European states go to war? It’s unlikely – but there would be less to stop them if they did want to; and, of course, just because they are democracies now doesn’t mean that they always will be. The only real lesson that history can give us on this is the track record of totally sovereign states working together in Europe. That has been far from brilliant. But the future is not the past and we live in a different world now so we could buck that trend.
I know that’s woolly as a lesson to learn; but it’s the only fair lesson to be learned. To infer more is to start to stretch what the evidence can tell us. The only thing that history can tell us for certain is that the creation of the European Union was explicitly done with the goal of reducing the possibility of war, which is probably why so much of its culture could be described as compromise and fudge rather than conflict.
Some people posing as historians (Boris Johnson, this one is aimed at you) have tried to construct other lessons from history; but they have stretched credulity. To compare the goals of Hitler or Napoleon to that of the European Union is to willfully ignore the evidence. Those two were conquerors, taking territory and enforcing their will. The EU is consensual, expanding only by request. The mere fact that we are having this referendum is sufficient evidence of that statement’s ridiculousness. Could you see Hitler allowing France in 1942 to vote on whether it wanted to be occupied or not? Of course not. Ridiculous emotive comments like that help no one and Boris Johnson was quite rightly denounced for the comparison.
So what can one conclude from this very brief look at Europe’s history? Not much really. We’ve fought and killed each other in Europe for hundreds of years but we’ve stopped recently and it’s unlikely we would start again overnight. That being said, such conflict is less likely when we work together than when we are apart; but that’s about all one can say with confidence.
However, the European Union was definitely set up with the goal of making war harder and providing more forums to discuss issues rather than fight. Its tendency towards compromise rather than conflict is perhaps a symptom of those origins; but that’s hardly a bad thing.
The history of Europe therefore provides context for the origin of the EU; but little else. It probably does make conflict less likely among its member states; though many other issues have also been at work. In short, I would say that history does not give a definitive view and that other issues – economics, democracy, immigration etc – have much more weight and impact on this decision. But it is definitely fair to acknowledge that the goal of the EU was peace and that its structure does try to reduce potential conflicts. It doesn’t always work; but it tries. Overall, I would therefore say the sentiments expressed by Remain ring truer than Leave (especially when they stay away from ridiculous emotive nonsense); but that both sides have some decent points on this issue.