Listen to some among the European political elite and you’ll hear that “ever closer union” is the inevitable endgame of European history. Their argument goes that it is the EU – first and foremost – that has ensured peace in Europe and to question more integration is, we are told, to risk a return to war and bloodshed.
In his State of the European Union address last year, José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, adopted this narrative, saying: “let me say to all those who want to roll back our integration and go back to isolation: the pre-integrated Europe of the divisions, the war, the trenches, is not what people desire and deserve…” before he then promised to set out “the principles and orientations that are necessary for a true political union.”
Then yesterday, the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier cautioned that the “loss of trust in the European project… holds great danger.” Writing in the Guardian, Herr Steinmeier said that “the prospect of war breaking out in the heart of Europe has become unimaginable… through the European Union, we have found a way to resolve our differences peacefully… it is easy to fall back on nationalist rhetoric, sung to the catchy tune of criticism of Europe. Given our history, we must firmly resist this.”
This historical narrative is not only both galling and misleading, but it also frequently goes unchallenged. Just as it was a frustration with the overriding idea that most of the UK business community was content with the EU status quo that led me to form Business for Britain and inject some balance into the economic debate, so it has been that the hyperbolic praise sent in the direction of Brussels for keeping the peace, and assumption that academia is universally on the side of EU integration, that has motivated me to bring together historians who can rebut this narrative.
Last year around 16 major historians wrote to the Times seeking to place the EU in a proper historical context, and called on their fellow academics to support them in wanting a looser, freer relationship with the EU (you can see the full letter here).
Today, a number of those historians – names such as Dr David Starkey, Andrew Roberts, Professor David Abulafia and Professor Jeremy Black – have responded to Frank-Walter Steinmeier’s Guardian article with the following letter:
“While we can gladly celebrate the fact that European nations now recognise the importance of peaceful diplomacy, it is historically inaccurate and misleading to put this solely down to the European project. Any historical analysis of postwar Europe must take into account the vital role of Nato, the cold war and the US in preserving peace. We should also note the dismal failure of the EU to prevent conflicts in the Balkans and the civil strife which the Union’s economic policies have created in the Mediterranean. The ‘criticism of Europe’ that Frank-Walter Steinmeier attributes to nationalist rhetoric should not be so casually dismissed. The institutions of the EU remain opaque and unaccountable. Rather than turning their ire on those who complain about the lack of democracy in the EU, European leaders should accept the need for reform as an immediate priority.” (Read in full here.)
This is a significant intervention. The signatories are men and women who have devoted their lives to researching and studying historical causes and effects, their response cannot be easily dismissed. It should also be noted that misleading claims about the European project take root quickly and are hard to subsequently get rid of (take the 3 million jobs figure, which remains a firm fixture on Lib Dem lines to take, despite being comprehensively disowned by the academic who originally came up with the number).
No-one is disputing the role the EU has played in bringing European nations closer since 1945, but many in Britain and across Europe do not support ever closer union, and they should not be derided as bellicose for doing so.