For most of us in this country, war is something that happens to other people. We have lived in peace since 1945 and the wars in which the United Kingdom has engaged since then have been on foreign soil (my apologies to readers in Ireland who may feel that they spent a good many years in “troubles” that must have felt extremely like being at war). To actually remember the war (WW2), you need to be about 80 and, to have been involved in any way, you must be well over 90. The country has been involved in plenty of wars since then, Korea, Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan, but they have all taken place well away from home and, for most of us, have been something that we watched on TV.
However, it is worth remembering that the foundation of what is now the EU emerged from the ruins of mainland Europe after WW2. Having fought three wars between 1870 and 1945, politicians in France and Germany were determined that there should not be a fourth. The external threat of the Soviet Union created a further pressure to focus minds on an economically healthy and cohesive Western Europe. The initial objective was to create the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). It was first proposed by French foreign minister Robert Schuman on 9 May 1950 as a way to prevent further war between France and Germany. He declared his aim was to “make war not only unthinkable but materially impossible“.
Taking the key materials from which tanks, ships and guns are made, the deliberate intention was to create a mutual dependence which would ensure that individual partners were unable to act against each other.
Europe in 12 Lessons by Pascal Fontaine
The determination to cement mutual dependency extended into the defence arena. Germany and France set up the Bureau des Programmes Franco-Allemands to create collaborative programmes so that France and Germany were mutually dependent for major items of defence equipment. This resulted in three very successful guided missile programmes, HOT, Milan and Roland. As a side effect, the collaboration created a guided missile industry that operated across European borders. The legacy of equipment co-operation lives on in OCCAR (Organisation Conjointe de Coopération en matière d’Armement / Organisation for Joint Armament Co-operation).
The urge to promote reconciliation and to avoid further wars in Europe seems to have failed to resonate with many in the UK, who continue to regard the EU as an entirely economic construct. Our exceptionalism, nurtured by a mythology about our role in WW2, seems to allow us to feel that the cultural and peace-making roles of the EU and its predecessors are beneath us. In the course of leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union, we have also left the Erasmus scheme and all the other cultural activities that existed to promote mutual understanding among near neighbours. We have also been largely unaware of the Peace Plus programme that the EU has been running to promote cross-border relations in Ireland.
And so, our act of Remembrance will remain the once-a-year event at the local war memorial and the wearing of a poppy. I will think of an uncle who died at Neuve-Chapelle and a grandfather who died of Spanish flu in Gibraltar. I will think of the uncles on both sides of my family who served in uniform and of my own parents who met in the ruins of Berlin while both were serving. I will also think of my children who were born in Germany in a different age, as members of the European Community. I would like to think that we have progressed, but have we?
Reflecting just for a moment, do we serve our forebears well by wearing a poppy for one week in the year, while the Blimps and blowhards blather on about “war with France” to protect British haddock, and while our government appears willing to break the hard won peace process in Ireland? Or would we be better honouring the sacrifice made by our forbears through membership of an organisation that was set up to ensure that war in Europe was unthinkable and has programmes in place to embed that culture?
For me, it is an easy choice, but for the time being, this option has been taken away from me and all that I can do is to wear a poppy.
The author asked to reman anonymous, having shared some very personal history.