A lesson from the Capitol

My previous blog, about being a British European, led to an extended conversation on Twitter about my contention that the European Union has made a major contribution to peace in Europe since 1945. I welcome the challenge, because it made me explore even more deeply my thinking on the subject.

My Twitter correspondent couldn’t see where conflict could come from among the family of European nations, in or out of the EU. I’m more circumspect. Yesterday’s events in Washington crystallised this issue for me to a certain extent, so I thought it worth putting a quick blog out there. 

Just to be absolutely clear on one point that was debated during that exchange, though: the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) from which the EU is descended was very much founded on the principle of preserving peace in Europe. From the 1951 Treaty of Paris:

RESOLVED to substitute for historic rivalries a fusion of their essential interests; to establish, by creating an economic community, the foundation of a broad and independent community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts; and to lay the bases of institutions capable of giving direction to their future common destiny; etc.

The Twitter exchange was also a helpful reminder that we British Europeans shouldn’t get mired in nostalgia the way Brexiteers are. The visionaries who gave us the ECSC were speaking very much from their time and place, emerging from the rubble of a brutal war. Thanks to the way Europe has developed since then, it really is hard to see France and Germany going to war with each other again. 

But the point I was trying to make on Twitter is that things can change very rapidly and unpredictably in world affairs. Nobody, for example, had conceived of a ‘Global War on Terror’ until the Twin Towers were attacked. The rise of populism, authoritarianism and nationalism has made the world more hair-trigger than before. A miscalculation can easily tip the balance into conflict.

Which brings me to events in Washington. While President-elect Biden is now certified by Congress, the attempt by his populist predecessor to subvert democracy demonstrates how unpredictable things can become. Though Trump has little chance of succeeding, he has poisoned the well, and the next few years of American politics will struggle to escape his baleful influence. We’ll see where we are in 2024, but Biden/Harris have their work cut out. 

The wrong leadership in the wrong place at the wrong time can have devastating consequences for peace and stability. Milošević is just one example in the modern age. Back to my previous blog, and as a democrat, I’d rather take my chances within a cooperative European polity framed by a treaty organisation than in a Europe of nation states with no focal point for the common interest. Let’s remember what that common interest is: respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law. 

I guess as an international security professional, I find it hard to be sanguine in these matters. But when I see the person who is supposedly the leader of the world’s liberal democracies egging on a mob, then I tend to think that maybe I’m right to feel this way. Complacent assumptions about the future seed the possibility that it will turn out very differently. 

The lesson for me is not a new one: the price of liberty is eternal vigilance. As is the price of peace. 

Photo by Karolina Grabowska on Pexels.com

4 thoughts on “A lesson from the Capitol

  1. Roger, I voted Brexit mainly due to the lack of direct democratic accountability between myself, as a British voter, and the EU leaders. Was my perception wrong or do you believe that the EU democratic mandate could be enhanced by direct elections?

    I guess this is a moot point for the British for a while but your view would be gratefully received.


    1. Thanks for your question, Rob. This is one of those things that always slightly mystified me, to be honest. There is of course a European Parliament, to which we (British voters) were invited to elect representatives. So, direct elections to a parliament. In practice, though, only a relatively small percentage of the electorate chose to vote in such elections (a low point of 24% in 1999; a high of 39% in 2004). I understand that it’s easier to be motivated to vote for an MP rather than an MEP because of local or UK national issues, which must seem more immediate to a UK voter than Europe-wide issues, but nevertheless the opportunity was there. European elections were also undertaken under a much fairer proportional representation system than our own first-past-the-post system.

      In addition, we elect our own Government, who represented us at 28 in the EU and who agreed (and often, as in the case of the Single Market and EU expansion, proposed) the measures that affected us in the UK. The Leave narrative that the EU is somehow a foreign power imposing its will is, I’m afraid, substantially wide of the mark – it’s a treaty organisation representing certain values (mentioned in my blog) that countries sign up to, with the big countries (including, formerly, the UK) having the biggest role in determining the organisation’s overall direction.

      In sum then – and apologies for the slightly long-winded answer to your very fair question – I never saw the democratic deficit that others worried about, though I do understand that, the larger the political entity, the more remote it might seem to the average voter. If anything, a deficit has opened up now because the EU will determine and pursue policy which will affect the UK but which we’ll now have much reduced influence over (the proposed trade agreement with China being a very immediate example).


  2. Oh Lord! Of course, you are an expert in your field. That won’t go down well with some. I can only comment in the rather childish way of: ‘Rearrange this well known phrase or saying – ” Hammer I hit the head you nail have on the you think.” Now I’ve put that down it sounds German or Latin. Excuse my levity.
    Thank the non-existent Lord that there are people around who can remind us about eternal vigilance.


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