The European Union is one of the most deserving recipients in the history of the Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel roll of honour contains the names of inspirational individuals such as Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King and Lech Walesa, who heroically led largely peaceful transformations in their own countries. But few of the other people or organisations awarded the Nobel Peace Prize have transformed an entire continent from war-torn destitution to peace and prosperity in the way that the EU has done.
One of the first tourist trips I made after being posted as a British diplomat at our mission to the European Union in Brussels was to the First World War cemeteries, memorials and museums around the Belgian town of Ypres. As I walked round absorbing the senseless deaths of millions of young people from backgrounds just like mine, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that there are few sadder, more sombre places on earth.
In many ways, the First World War was merely a continuation of the way relations had been conducted in Europe* for centuries. Shifting alliances between countries were regularly punctuated by brutal wars over often minor squabbles about territory and resources. The difference when the First World War broke out was that military technology had advanced sufficiently to kill millions rather than thousands. The post-war horror at what had happened gave rise to the famous slogan “Never Again”. Unfortunately, nothing practical was put in place to break the cycle of conflict. “Never Again” turned out to be “Yet Again” twenty years later, when ongoing rivalry, economic crisis and autocratic politics led to World War II and over sixty million more deaths.
After World War II, radical changes were finally made in Europe, inspired by statesmen such as Churchill, Adenauer, Schuman and Monnet. The most significant was the establishment of the forerunner to the EU, the European Coal and Steel Community. The founding fathers of the EU saw the pooling of resources in the mutual interest and structured, rules-based cooperation as the way to avoid more conflict. The outcome of their vision has been a staggering success. Six decades on, there have been no further wars between EU members. In fact, the very notion of such a thing seems ridiculous now, even at a time of economic crisis.
Every nation that has joined the Union, which has grown into the biggest, most successful single market the world has ever seen, has become more prosperous as a result. The attraction of EU membership has helped democracy and freedom to spread across the continent, from the ravaged defeated World War II fascist dictatorships of Italy and Germany, to countries like Spain, Portugal and Greece, where such regimes endured longer, and the nations of Central Europe that spent decades in the grip of Soviet communism.
Some little Englanders tie themselves in knots trying to claim that the EU has had little to do with these great advances. But the inconvenient truth is that an organisation expressly designed to end war, spread freedom and increase prosperity in Europe has, against all historical precedent, fulfilled all of those objectives.
The history that led to the formation of the EU was often in the back of my mind when I was representing the UK at endless, dull meetings in Brussels. At these meetings, we bickered with our European partners. We got mind-bendingly bored. We never got everything we wanted. But we all got a deal our countries could live with. And our arguments took place in bland meeting rooms, not sodden trenches. Best of all, nobody died.
*For the purposes of this article, I am going to observe the historic, geographic and objective reality that the UK is part of Europe. Any references to “Europe” and “Europeans” mean us too.