The European peace project is under threat


Picture of Julian Egan
Julian Egan

Head of Advocacy and Policy Dialogue at International Alert.

With European elections looming, it is time for voters to think about what sort of EU they want, what values it should project and the role it should play in the world. With EU politics at a turning point and external threats driving a rush to beef up armies and shut down borders, how the EU pursues peace abroad, but also at home, urgently needs to feature in these calculations.

In February this year, a day after Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, described the EU as “first and foremost a peace project”, France recalled its Ambassador from Rome.  It did this after a series of vitriolic exchanges over the past months, coming to a head when Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio met with yellow vest protestors in Paris, one of whom had called for a civil war.

Recalling an ambassador shows a relationship in trouble. In the days of great power politics, where a patchwork of alliances and backroom deals dictated interstate relations, it was this sort of incident that had the potential to escalate from a war of words to an actual war.

This is not in the realm of possibility in relation to this dispute between France and Italy but it is reminiscent of another era.  Few remember that the peace that Europe has experienced over the last 70 years is the exception rather than the rule when it comes to the expanse of European history.

To say that there could never be war in Western Europe again is at best naïve

Ending the continuous wars between France and Germany, from the Thirty Years’ War to World War II, was central to the raison d’être of the EU. This was achieved through creating a shared identity, celebrating cultural diversity, creating common economic, foreign and security interests as well as collective values such as democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights.

But when, during the Brexit campaign, David Cameron suggested that the breakdown of the EU could result in instability in Europe, this was dismissed as sensationalism.  To a certain extent it was. Europe would never overnight revert to the use of force amongst its nations. Rather this would be a consequence of a slow decline in its institutions, shifts in national identities and domestic political currents and an economic union that was perceived to be unequal or no longer delivering for the wider population.

We may well have started down this path. The political forces increasingly shaping European politics – those of nationalism, division and outside threats, of challenging post-war liberal democratic values – look a lot more like the politics of the early 20th century. 

Nationalist and Far Right parties have swept to power in several states and seem set to do well at the European elections. Some have suggested that such parties could win around a third of seats with Italy’s League party projected to be the second biggest national party in the European Parliament.  What does seem clear is that the centre-right and centre-left parties that have dominated for 40 years are set to lose their majority. 

Now, add to this the nefarious influence of digital misinformation, erosion of trust in traditional political institutions and an upswing in violent geopolitics on Europe’s Eastern border and you have a worrying mix of forces at play.  To say that there could never be war in Western Europe again is at best naïve.

It is not the prospect of other states exiting the EU which puts the peace project at risk. After all, self-described ‘illiberal democracies’ of Hungary, Poland, Austria and Italy are not gearing up to leave the institution. Rather, it is more likely that they will seek to reshape the EU in their own image. 

Rhetoric around ‘European values’ would disappear or be transformed to reflect a more ‘illiberal’ vision

This would mean a ‘fortress Europe’ mentality driven by the uniting obsession of the Far Right – migration – and other perceived external threats. Rhetoric around ‘European values’ would disappear or be transformed to reflect a more ‘illiberal’ vision. Some speculate that should elections go as predicted, the populist parties may have the numbers to block parliament’s triggering of Article 7 procedures against member states that flout the rule of law – a step it took with Hungary last year.  Checks and balances like the European Court of Human Rights and Court of Justice could suffer the same fate as the judiciaries in Hungary and Poland or simply be dismantled in the face of a reassertion of national sovereignty. 

Outside the EU, multilateralism – the key to tackling global challenges such as climate change – will be overshadowed by insular domestic agendas. The EU, currently the world’s largest foreign aid donor, would probably arrive at a ‘charity starts at home’ policy, ignoring the role that aid plays in addressing issues such as violent extremism, inequality and migration.  It is these sorts of shifts that precipitate the gradual decline of the EU as a peace project.

For those who remain true to the ideals that drove the establishment of the EU, there is a need to more actively tackle the root causes of the threat.  These include legitimate concerns around rising inequality, identity politics and how governments find local solutions to global problems, whether that’s climate change or migration.  It is also about dealing with a declining sense of political inclusion and the corresponding rise in anti-establishment feeling.  Leaders need to examine how traditional politics could have gone so wrong as to open the window to forces that could lead to the decay of a liberal democratic order that has, on the whole, benefited Europeans for more than half a century.  Ultimately, Brexit was the canary in the coal mine. The real game starts now. Vote wisely!

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