Why is western Europe at peace?

Map of Europe with EU flag superimposedAs the EU wins the Nobel Peace Prize, we are reminded of a time when Europe was the site of many deadly wars.

Many institutions, from NATO to the UN, have claimed responsibility for the relative peace in Europe since the end of the Second World War. Can any of these claims be substantiated, or are they all special interests trying to make excuses for their hefty expense accounts?

The main thing to understand in Europe is that there had long been a series wars between of rival powers who wished to control the continent.  But, despite all the war we learn about in history class, if we look at dates, this isn’t that significant.  In the early 19th century, yes even during the Napoleonic wars, other parts of the world were more drenched in bloodshed than Europe was.

And after those wars, Europe has been relatively stable.  Portugal and Spain have had a stable border pretty much since the Napoleonic wars were over.  With the removal of the Portuguese monarchy, a lot of the instability of that kingdom went.

After the Napoleonic war, Britain didn’t do much fighting on the Western half of the continent.  There were two World Wars, but celebrated fights like Crimea tended to be in the East.  For nearly 100 years, most of Western Europe was secure.  And before the Napoleonic wars, Europe was seen as a relatively thriving place.

If we look at the causes of war in Europe for the past 500 years or so, monarchy was at the forefront.  The monarch wanted to change religion, or wouldn’t accept religion.  Or, there was a dispute on whether a woman could take the throne.  Or, two families fought each other over who was the rightful heir to the throne.  Some wars were fought against monarchy itself, others fought by foreign powers attempting to impose a monarch on a republic.

France and Germany had a rivalry which seemed to go beyond monarchy. Yet even then, leaders with the power of monarchs were often behind the wars.

Though dictatorship had something do to with it,  we can also remember that dictatorship is monarchy in infancy. We see that happening in North Korea, where the third generation dictator has taken the throne, or in Cuba, where Castro’s brother calls the shots.  As democracy has finally won in France and Germany, peace has thrived between the two nations.  But, that doesn’t mean the two nations are at peace.

France still has military involvements in different parts of the world, sometimes it seems to be propping up would be monarchs, which will just bring out more war.  This war might not be in France, but it is war nonetheless.

Of course, we all have our theories, which may be shaped by our financial interests, the history we were taught at school, or the ideology of the social group we belong to.

My initial suspicion with EU fan-boys was that they merely liked the EU because they worked for European institutions or hoped to work for Europe in the future.

I especially thought this bias applied when I read the about the EU celebrating fifty years with the fiftieth anniversary of the Coal and Steal treaties.   The then and current President of the Commission, J. Manuel Barroso, claimed that EU membership was behind the flower-power revolution in Portugal that overturned Caetano and led to the end of the colonial wars in Angola and Mozambique.

(We normally call it the Salazar regime, even though Salazar was dead by then.  From my brief study of history, it seems Caetano was reluctant in his leadership role and wanted to end the war anyway, so the coup d’état could have been staged to save face.)

Then, other important leaders from Eastern Europe made similar claims for their own revolutions.  They wanted to leave Warsaw Pact and join the EU.  And when we look at the referendum results from many Eastern European countries, we see that people did like the idea of the EU. (Again, the cynic can dismiss this as economic self interest in EU subsidies.)

The warring states of the former Yugoslavia seem eager to join the Union, even those who haven’t done so already.  Old enemies appear to be able to live together under the blue and yellow flag.  But some of those who have joined are having second thoughts, with their own so-called “extremist” parties calling for a greater degree of national autonomy.

Is the EU an instrument for peace?  Or, was the stand off of NATO verses Warsaw pact with it’s threat of mutual annihilation the cause of peace?  Or, was it just the bad memory of World War II that made people sick of fighting?  (If so, why didn’t World War I do the trick?)

If we look at the rest of the world, we see that the bad memory of World War II did not always result in peace.  China is perhaps the best example of an extremely bloody war that occurred after the war, despite the fact that some of the highest death tolls during the war were in China itself.  But if we look at Chinese history, we see a history of great slaughter, from before Genghis Khan down until the present day.  In the 19th century, and in the early 20th century, China’s wars eclipsed those of most of the rest of the world (or course, it’s population was eclipsing that as well.)

India also knew a great deal of violence after World War II.  But China and India, and Indochina may all seem to be special cases.  China itself was leaving a monarchy in the start of the century, and had never settled it’s ideological struggle or its border disputes, and India was a newly established state without clear borders.

The European Union settles the border disputes by allowing members of the nation states to buy property across the border, work in any country they chose (to a degree), and trade freely (in theory).  The Union is somewhat united in issues of trade, and there are treaties to ensure that linguistic and national minorities from elsewhere in the Union are protected.  Most of the pretexts for war have been eliminated.

But the big question is, did the final acceptance of the greater value of peace make the union possible, or did the union strengthen the final acceptance of peace?  Does the EU deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?


  1. Hello Vasco,

    Even though I subscribed some time ago, this is the first time I really came here and read an article.
    When I found this place in the net, I found it very interesting and decided to subscribe, mostly to try not to forget that it existed and to start contacting with people that wanted to discuss history and other subjects in what seemed to me, a very well thought way of getting people together and getting them to think about matters.
    And today, I finally decided to read an article.
    I found your article very interesting. And I too, when I heard the news, thought: “How come? Does Europe deserve this prize?”
    Well, it seems that some thinking heads thought so. And, this is the first article I’m reading about the matter as well. But, if we think a little more, maybe there is some reason: Europe has being trying hard (apart from the crises we’re now living), to get countries and people together, to get people thinking together, to get people solving things together, to make a difficult union result…
    And I also believe that these prizes help people to think a little more about the momentary situation and to work even harder to solve problems that may exist – and who knows, save Europe from the dangers (and animosities between countries) that are being brought to it by the crises.
    One more thing: Portugal has had its frontiers with the Spanish territory definitely decided since 1297, with the Treaty of Alcanises. There was an “occupation” of a small municipality – Olivença – in 1801 and it was supposed to have been restituted according to the Congress of Vienna but that never happened. In 2008 local authorities thought about creating a sort of euro-zone in this territory (about 430m2).

    Maria da Luz Moreira.

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