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The origins of the EU
28 Jan, 2018

Peace, not trade; so let’s get our focus right

London4Europe Committee Member and former HM Treasury senior civil servant Michael Romberg worries about the emphasis Remain campaigners give to trade. Money matters, of course. But peace and democracy matter much more. That is where the EU came in. That is what we should campaign on.

The end of World War II and the start of the EU

The origins of the EU are as a peace project.   The EU itself says of its origins in the 1950s: “The European Union is set up with the aim of ending the frequent and bloody wars between neighbours, which culminated in the Second World War.”  

It is a difficult subject to raise with Leavers because it is an essential part of the Leave platform to deny that role to the EU. One of the Leave narratives is that the UK more or less happily joined a free trade area; everything else is just an irritating and unwarranted add-on.  

The reality is that the UK left a free trade area – EFTA, the European Free Trade Association (the clue is in the name) – to join what was then called the European Economic Community (the clue is in that name too).

The EEC was one of the forerunners of the EU. But the EEC and the other predecessor bodies were founded to promote peace in Europe. Trade, supranational control of coal and steel, of atomic energy – all these were useful enough in their own right. But fundamentally they were means to an end: peace amongst member states.  

Even the Daily Telegraph answers the question why the European Union was formed with: “After the Second World War there was a new movement to create unity between Germany and France, which would ultimately lay the foundations for the European Union four decades later.”  

The USA in those pre-Trump days took a positive view of the EEC. With the ending of the Marshall Plan, the formation of the EEC would help increase prosperity and so support peace and act as a defence against communism.

External Peace

Part of the Leavers’ technique in dealing with the argument is to confuse the different roles of NATO and the EU.  

NATO is a military alliance that protects its members against external aggression by non-members. Initially its main focus was the Soviet Union, nowadays it faces Russia and unrest on its frontiers more generally.  

Wars are not won by armies but by countries. There is not a complete overlap between EU membership and European NATO membership, but it is near enough. The EU’s role in the NATO context is to provide political unity and support. Think of sanctions against Russia because of its annexation of the Crimea.  

Peace Amongst Member States

The EU was founded in order to bring peace between member states. So while NATO guards members against a non-member (the Soviet Union/ Russia), the EU helps to prevent war between member states (Germany v France, for example).  

The practical start of what has now become the EU is often seen to be the Schumann declaration. It was given in May 1950 by Robert Schumann - not the composer, but a part German, part Luxembourgeois French Foreign Secretary.  

It led to the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community – the first of several parallel European level bodies including the European Economic Community. These were later brought together and relaunched as the European Union.  

The Schumann declaration starts with the words “World peace”. That is what it was about: “World peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it.”  

It goes on the propose a supra-national authority for coal and steel, the basis of munitions: “the solidarity in production thus established will make it plain that any war between France and Germany becomes not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible.”  

Free Trade Is Not Enough

The Treaty of Rome (1958) established the European Economic Community as a further body.  

In practice, Europe had free trade in the summer of 1914. There was not a free trade area as such. But lots of bilateral trade deals meant that there was extensive free trade amongst European countries. It is said that the khaki dye for British army uniforms came from Germany.  

For those rich enough to travel there were few restrictions. It was common for people to have attended university abroad – several members of Asquith’s war cabinet had been to university in Germany.  

It was thought that the degree of economic interconnectedness would make war unthinkable – the economic damage would be too great.   We now know that it was not. The forces of nationalism were stronger.

As President Mitterand said towards the end of his life: “Le nationalisme? C’est la guerre”. Nationalism is just war.   And that justifies the wider activities of the EU.

The Continuing Need For The EU

That purpose of ensuring peace amongst member states has endured and is in the background of all the EU’s initiatives. They have all been means to an end.  

Describing the EU as a peace project has never played well in the UK, where we quite like the idea of wars – we win them, we romanticise the suffering and now we fight them far away. We are probably the most belligerent member of the EU.  

But EU membership has helped us improve the relationship with the Irish Republic in support of the Northern Ireland peace process – which brought to an end Europe’s longest lasting and deadliest terrorist campaign, a clear example of State failure. The peace process had its origins in the desires for peace of Northern Ireland and UK people and politicians; it was facilitated by an American negotiator. But it is hard to believe that on the one hand the EU rules about freedom of movement of people and goods and on the other hand the continual meetings of British and Irish politicians in Brussels played no part.  

And the same is true of all the other disputed territories that litter our continent. I have been on walking holidays in Alto Adige/ Sűdtirol, a majority German-speaking territory that Italy acquired from Austria-Hungary after World War I. After decades of unrest including terrorism by those who wished to use German as the language of schools and administration, a move to greater devolution and bilingualism calmed the province. The later accession of Austria to the EU enabled further measures to help: the creation of a transnational Alpine region, freedom of movement, oversight of democratic norms.   Now the region is calm and prosperous.

Nor has war disappeared from Europe. Think of the Yugoslav civil war, or the Russian annexation of the Crimea.

Nobel Peace Prize

In 2012 the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with the justification: "The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe. "  

The prize committee statement also said: “The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.”  


Of course there are many reasons why there has never been a war between EU member states. EU membership is only a contributing factor. And one can kick away some of the pillars that support the roof before it falls in. But peace is so central to our happiness that that is a high risk approach.  

Let me put all this another way: the rise of nationalist parties in part reflects the success of the EU. War between member states has become unthinkable. So some people think that it is safe to support nationalist parties. But of course, the unthinkable can become actuality very suddenly. Look at the photographs of the Edwardian high summer of 1914. Then too a big European war was unthinkable.