EU President warns of a return to the trenches
One hundred years after World War One, the President of the EU Commission says that his institution is vital in avoiding another bloody conflict. Are these worries justified?
It is among the most famous of history’s broken promises: ‘Never again.’ That was the slogan taken up by almost every European after the tragedy and carnage of the First World War. Yet scarcely 20 years had passed before Europe once again exploded into yet another devastating conflict.
Seventy years have passed since the last world war. And although peace has been brutally broken by destructive conflicts like the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the threat of continent-wide conflagrations like 1914 and 1939 seems distant today. But as the centenary of World War One approaches, a chorus of historians and politicians have raised their voices to issue a chilling warning: there is no guarantee that this relative peace will last.
This Thursday, President of the EU Commission Jose Manuel Barroso used his ‘State of the European Union’ address to add to this chorus a powerful voice. ‘Let me say to all those who rejoice in Europe's difficulties,’ he proclaimed: ‘The pre-integrated Europe of the divisions, the war, the trenches, is not what people desire and deserve.’
Barroso’s implication was clear: without the European Union and related institutions to bind them together in cooperation and harmony, nation states would fall prey to dangerous rivalry. The great powers would compete fiercely for wealth and influence, with potentially catastrophic results.
The EU President is not alone in these fears. Last year, British Business Secretary Vince Cable warned that there was ‘no automatic guarantee’ against a return to ‘nationalism and conflict’ should the Euro collapse.
And this March the powerful and respected President of Luxembourg made headlines with a provocative comparison: ‘I am chilled by the realisation of how similar circumstances in Europe in 2013 are to those of 100 years ago,’ he said.
What are these supposed similarities? An increasingly powerful Germany threatening to dwarf other regional powers; growing nationalist sentiment across the continent; a shortage of natural resources. Should we really live in fear of World War Three?
Union or death?
Baseless, paranoid propaganda, say Eurosceptics: war is in no nation’s interest, and our mutual interest in peace will survive with or without a bloated bureaucratic monstrosity to watch over us. This continent has seen where nationalism and conflict leads, and has rejected it once and for all. The EU is a consequence of the desire for peace, not a cause of it.
War might seem like an unlikely prospect, reply the prophets of conflagration, but that is no guide. In 1914, posturing and brinkmanship pushed Europe into a war that nobody wanted and few foresaw. In the late 1930s English newspapers were more preoccupied with abdication than war. If we take peace for granted, it could disappear in a blink.
- ‘Climate change is far scarier than another world war.’ Do you agree?
- Do institutions like the EU and the UN really help prevent wars?
- In 1933 the Oxford Union held a famous debate on the proposition: ‘This House will in no circumstances fight for its country’ – and voted in favour. Hold a class debate on the same subject and take a vote.
- Write down five factors that caused the First World War. Do you see any similarities with Europe today?
Some People Say...
“Democracy is the greatest enemy of war.”
What do you think?
Q & A
- Why is everybody suddenly talking about the collapse of Europe? Should I be worried?
- It’s a tough time for those who support European integration: the common currency is in turmoil, 60% of Europeans lack trust in the EU and nationalist parties are on the rise throughout the continent. A year or two ago predictions were rife that the Euro could collapse, possibly followed by the European Community itself. Those fears have subsided a bit now – but the future is not guaranteed.
- And what if the EU did collapse?
- Few doubt that the immediate economic disruption would be extreme. But beyond that nobody knows. Some people imagine an era of depression, instability and war, while others see the EU as a stifling institution that would ultimately be better off dead. Nobody knows for sure.
- Balkan wars
- Until the early 1990s, the Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia ruled over a large section of Southeastern Europe. But as the communist state grew weaker and nationalist sentiments grew, the region split along roughly ethnic lines and a series of terrible wars ensued. Today the territory is occupied by the nations of Bosnia & Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Slovenia. The independence of Kosovo is still disputed.
- A hundredth anniversary. World War One began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until the official declaration of peace on 11 November 1918.
- Integration is taking separate parts and forming them into a coherent whole. In the case of nations it is usually taken to mean the unification of economies, legal systems and politics. But it can also refer to cultural integration, when people from different nationalities exchange and adopt one another’s customs.
- Nationalist sentiment
- During the 19th Century, the ideology of nationalism became extremely powerful in Europe: many believed that their first loyalty and affiliation was to their nation and its people. In areas still ruled by empires (like Sarajevo, where Archduke Franz Ferdinand was shot), that led to militant separatism. In new countries like Germany it meant assertiveness to the point of aggression.
- Natural resources
- Today scarcity is threatened by limited global resources. Some historians say that depleting resources in European countries before 1914 led to increased competition overseas, which in turn caused an arms race. Historians still disagree enormously about exactly what caused World War One.