It is so easy to take the European Union for granted, or obsess about its faults, says SONY KAPOOR. But to understand its true value you need only look at how other global tensions remain unresolved
I was at the Nobel Centre in Oslo recently reading the citation for the peace prize awarded to the EU in 2012. Coming as it did at the height of the eurozone crisis it was not an uncontroversial choice. I remember spending the day the announcement was made fielding BBC interview questions and lauding the decision, at a time when most others in the UK seemed to be criticising it.
Given the developments we have seen since – in Ukraine and the Brexit vote, in particular – some of those observers may feel vindicated in their criticism of the decision. I would argue there is now even more reason to extol it. How so?
Let us start with a little thought experiment. Imagine if you woke up one morning, and someone told you that India and Pakistan were about to go to war, and your instinctive response to that was to laugh at them in their face because it was such a ludicrous, impossible idea.
That is exactly what has happened for France and Germany. Anyone suggesting they may go to war would be met with hilarious laughter or an instant and total loss of credibility, and rightly so.
The partition of India in 1947, the most traumatic event in the history of the subcontinent, displaced more than fifteen million people, and killed more than a million. Both my parents, who came from wealthy families, were forced to flee for their lives leaving everything behind, and lost family members in the senseless violence that accompanied the unjustifiable British decision to split British India into India, West Pakistan (now Pakistan) and East Pakistan (now Bangladesh). Millions of Indian families, including mine, who had to start all over again as refugees, are still scarred by that trauma.
But this is nothing compared to the trauma that the Second World War inflicted on Europe. The people of Germany, Poland, France, Italy, the UK and other countries killed one another in vast numbers. Not to mention the Holocaust visited upon the Jewish and Roma people.
Yet more than 70 years after those traumatic events on the European continent and the Indian subcontinent, things look very different.
I grew up in India in the shadow of fear that a war between with Pakistan could break out at any time. The subcontinent is where a nuclear conflagration is still most likely. India and Pakistan hardly trade, are on the opposite sides of most international issues, with constant low-level conflict and violence at the many disputed parts of the border. Getting visas to visit each other’s countries is an exercise in frustration, and the border teems with military presence.
Tit-for-tat raids, periodic suspensions of diplomatic ties and a general unfriendliness make theirs one of the most fraught relationships, fuelling an arms race that both countries can ill afford. Both spend a large multiple of their health budget on military expenditure, even as life expectancy lags more than a decade behind EU levels, and morbidity rates are unacceptably high.
Meanwhile, Germany, Poland, France, Italy and the UK have lived through the longest conflict-free period of peace in the troubled and violent history of the European continent. Citizens roam freely in the borderless Schengen zone, with well over a million having moved to another EU country in 2017 alone, and intra-EU trade just set a new record.
France and Germany sometimes have joint cabinet meetings and together have driven the engine of European integration, a far cry from the days of killing each other’s citizens.
Few countries are more closely aligned and integrated as these once sworn enemies.
Of course they started in very different places, but it is still a study in contrasts that the Indian subcontinent has the largest concentration of the world’s poor, even as the EU enjoys some the highest living standards in the world.
The Nobel Committee back in 2012 rightly cited the EU’s ‘successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights’. It was also spot-on in saying: ‘The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace’.
I would add prosperity to peace. The EU, despite its many imperfections, remains history’s most successful peace and prosperity project, especially since the successful integration of most of the post-communist central and eastern European member states. As an experiment in how to pool sovereignty in an increasingly globalised world, the EU offers a template for the rest to follow.
And yet, far too many – especially in generations that have no memory of the war – take the peace and prosperity the EU offers for granted. If it were possible, as I suggested only half in jest at a trustee meeting of the Friends of Europe organisation, it may be useful to have a non-EU day – complete with physical borders, faux-conflict and barriers to cross-border trade and commerce – just to remind people of the bad old days. A visit to the India-Pakistan border may do the same. It sometimes takes an outside perspective to remind us of how wonderful what we take for granted is.
Having spent the difficult, often frustrating, years from 2009 to 2013 fighting the financial crisis from Brussels and Berlin only enhanced my admiration for what the EU has achieved. The fact that pooling sovereignty is hard only seeks to remind us of how far we have come against all odds. That is what the Nobel Committee admirably sought to do at the height of that crisis.
Back in 1947 it seemed far more likely that peace would reign in the Indian subcontinent than in Europe, but the EU has transformed Europe, entirely for the better. None of this was a foregone conclusion, and yet, thanks largely to the success of the European project, here we are living in a wonderful world that the Indian subcontinent can only dream of.
But the European Union cannot be taken for granted and remains very much a work in progress. The re-emergence of illiberal tendencies in many EU countries, the new east/west fault-line, the unfinished business of economic reform and integration, the rising threat from Russia, Trump’s divisiveness and the continuing shameful treatment of the Roma minority are just some of the problems the EU will need to confront head-on. These are difficult matters no doubt, but they pale in comparison to the achievements of the EU thus far.
I have little doubt that having managed to forge peace from war and genocide, we shall overcome these challenges too.
That is why, despite some anonymous death threats and countless racist rants, I continue to fight the dark forces of Brexit to keep my country, the UK, a part of this wonderful European project. There is no need to ‘make the EU great again’, because it already is the best and the greatest thing we have.
Sony Kapoor is managing director of Re-Define, an international think tank and a trustee of Friends of Europe, a pan-EU think tank