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Leave Argument: The EU is not the reason for peace in Europe

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In 2012 the EU won the Nobel Peace Prize because of its ‘six decade-long contribution to peace and human rights in Europe.’ The award recognised the success of Franco-German reconciliation, the EU’s eastward enlargement, and peace efforts in the Balkans. It is often argued that the EU played a key role in building peace in Europe after the Second World War and has helped keep the peace ever since. But whilst the EU has played an occasional role in cementing peace in Europe, it has not been the primary cause.

The causes of post-war peace

The primary reason for European integration after World War Two was to strengthen Franco-German solidarity and banish the threat of war. To achieve this, six countries formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) in 1951: France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg, and the Netherlands. These countries agreed to share their coal and steel resources. This was meant to develop their economies and limit the threat of another war, by moving the control of coal and steel from national governments to the ECSC institutions. Further economic and political integration was achieved with the creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957 and the European Union (EU) in 1993.

Since the ECSC was founded six years after the end of World War Two, it was not responsible for peace directly after the war. Peace was created by arrangements set up by the Allies and the Soviet Union, which stopped any threat of German rearmament. The 1945 Potsdam Agreement split Germany into four zones, each occupied and governed separately by the UK, US, France, and the Soviet Union. They also abolished the German armed forces, banned munitions factories and restricted civilian industries that could support rearmament. In 1946 the Allied Control Council put a cap, set at 25% of the pre war production level, on German steel production and many steel plants were destroyed. This occupation and disarmament was more influential on making a Franco-German conflict impossible than the ECSC.

US economic intervention in Europe via the 1948 Marshall Plan, which lasted for four years, also lessened the risk of conflict in Western Europe. The plan gave $13 billion (approximately $130 billion in current dollar value as of August 2015) in economic support to help rebuild Western European economies after the end of World War Two. The plan, which helped make Europe more prosperous, removed some of the economic tensions that had led to World War Two.

When the ECSC was created in 1951 it offered limited incentives for peace. This is because, while building cooperation between Germany and France was important, the potential for another conflict between them was not the biggest threat to peace in the post-war period. A conflict between the USA and Soviet Union was a bigger threat and, it has been argued, that the Cold War (1947-1991) created the biggest incentives for peace in Europe. There are three reasons for this: the military power of the US and Soviet Union within Europe, the rough military equality between these two countries, and the common knowledge that each of them was armed with a large nuclear arsenal. These variables made an open military conflict between these two countries and their European allies extremely difficult.

The creation of the European Economic Community (EEC) in 1957 created greater economic and political integration between members. However it did not play an important role in keeping the peace between the Soviet Union and the USA. A report by Historians for Britain argues that  the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), created in 1949, was much more important. With 28 members, its main goal is to defend, via military action, any member that is attacked or subjected to any form of aggression. It also has a nuclear deterrent. As a military organisation, Nato can intervene to solve crises, whereas the EU, because it has no central or joint military powers, cannot. The 2001 insurgency in Macedonia, the Bosnian War (1992-1995) and the First Kosovo War (1998-1999) are just some examples where Nato has outperformed the EU with regards to crisis management.

Spreading peace after the fall of the Soviet Union

It is hard to believe that the EU has created peace in Europe because Europe has not been particularly peaceful. According to the Historians for Britain report, since 1945 there have been 25 armed conflicts in Europe, not including conflicts in the Soviet dominated areas of Eastern Europe before 1991. The Yugoslav War in 1991 was the first example of the EU’s inability to prevent armed conflicts in Europe after the fall of the Soviet Union. The EU, alongside the United Nations, was slow to intervene and failed to prevent large-scale disasters such as the 1995 atrocities in Srebrenica. In the end Nato, led by America, took over the military operation. Because EU member states had to agree on defence and security issues, the EU’s decision making structure had hindered its ability to spread peace.

More recent events show that the EU’s inability to act quickly and effectively is still a problem. In 2003 Britain joined the US-led invasion of Iraq,  despite the opposition of other EU member states. In 2011 the EU was criticised for its fragmented response to the uprisings in Libya. Whilst Germany opposed a no-fly zone, France and the UK took military action. Even non-military responses such as sanctions can be inhibited by the requirement of agreement between member states. Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 led to delayed EU sanctions. Germany initially opposed sanctions whereas some Eastern European countries supported them.

The EU has acted effectively on some issues. During the Troubles in Northern Ireland (1968-1998) the EU helped resolve violence by funding peaceful projects via structural funds. The EU has played an important and successful role in some of the Balkan conflicts, using the  possibility  of candidacy for  EU membership to help persuade Macedonia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina to stop fighting. But its record of inaction is too large to consider it a major peace creator over the past 60 years.

Some argue that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, the EU spread peace in Eastern Europe when it extended membership to eight former members of the Soviet Union in 2004: Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic. Bulgaria and Romania also joined in 2007. However 2004 and 2007 are quite some time after 1989. Whilst it is true that joining the EU aided stability in these countries, to solely credit the EU ignores the national movements that achieved independence and pushed for democracy afterwards. For example, the Solidarity movement in Poland pushed for fair elections, independent trade unions with the right to strike, and religious and political freedom of expression.

The EU can create tension

Whilst integration and cooperation have been the supposed aims of the EU, some of its decisions have led to disunity and tension. The euro was expected to harmonize the business cycle and the monetary system of the eurozone. Instead its created new divisions and exacerbated old ones. For example, there is a growing divide between economies in the north and south. The failure of the EU to tackle the migration crises, mixed with the absence of internal borders under Schengen, has led to far-right political parties becoming more popular.


Whilst the integration created by the EU and its predecessors has helped create cooperation, especially between France and Germany, it has not been the main reason for peace in Europe during the last 60 years. Nato, the dynamics of the Cold War and US intervention have played a huge role. European integration contributed little to the building of peace in post-war Europe and the EU’s record in keeping the peace on its external borders is poor. In fact, some EU policies and institutions have exacerbated tensions between countries and led to a resurgence of far-right political parties.