On 12 October 2012 it was announced that the European Union had won a Nobel Peace Prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee, which grants the prize, asserted that the EU had aided the transformation of Europe ‘from a continent of war to a continent of peace’. They were right to do so. Rarely has a Nobel Prize been better deserved. Eurosceptics, of course, hit the roof. UKIP leader Nigel Farage inevitable and unfortunately had something to say, stating that the award brought the Nobel Peace Prize ‘into total disrepute’. But as we will see the evidence is to the contrary. The EU has done much to promote peace, and also liberal democratic Government, across Europe. This is of course a good in itself, but it is also in Britain’s national interest. A Europe made up of politically stable and prosperous nation states, sharing sovereignty in some areas, is clearly preferable to us to a Europe of authoritarian and aggressive entities. British Eurosceptics do tend to appreciate this stability, they are not aggressive imperialists, but they attribute this stability to NATO and American hegemony more generally. This has clearly been important, but is insufficient as an explanation. As we will see it’s been the spread of liberal-democratic values, attached to the juicy carrot of free market access, as well as NATO which has been so important for European security.
Europe has of course experienced conflict since the European Economic Community was established in 1958. But generally not in EEC/EU member states, an impressive achievement considering Europe’s history of conflict and ethnic fragmentation. Let’s look at some recent European Wars. The 1991-95 Yugoslav Wars (the deadliest in Europe since WWII), the 1992 Transnistria War, the Chechen Wars of 1994-6 and 1999-present, the 1998-99 Kosovo War, the 2008 Russo-Georgian War and the 2014-present war in Eastern Ukraine. All these conflicts took place in the relatively limited parts of Europe which aren’t in the EU. It’s also worth noting that those European politicians who have approved of Putin’s aggression in Eastern Ukraine have tended to be ardent Eurosceptics, their sympathy for redrawing the borders of Europe by force suggesting that Europe would be a very different, and rather less nice, place if they ruled their respective countries.
Nigel Farage, for example, argued that the war in Ukraine was a result of the EU’s ‘imperialist, expansionist’ ambitions, and accused the EU of having ‘blood on its hands’. Le Pen of the Front National asserted that ‘I am surprised a Cold War on Russia has been declared in the European Union’, whilst Heinz-Christian Strache, Chairman of the Freedom Party of Austria, urged the EU ‘to stop playing the stooge of the U.S. in the encirclement of Russia’. Dutch Freedom Party leader Geert Wilders continued the trend by blaming ‘shameless Europhiles with their dreams of empire’ for the Ukraine crisis. In short, according to the Eurosceptic far-right, either the EU or that great liberal-democratic nation America, were responsible for the decision of a reactionary Russian Government to invade Eastern Ukraine.
But as I stated earlier, EU membership doesn’t just tend to make countries more peaceful, it also tends to make them more liberal-democratic, and better at protecting human rights. Let’s compare countries which started from a similar point following the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the USSR. Those countries which were behind the ghastly Iron Curtain. Since the end of Communist Government they have gone in radically different directions in terms of democracy and human rights, and there is a strong correlation between the direction travelled and whether a country has joined the EU. Let’s start with Press Freedom. According to the 2015 Press Freedom Index, produced by Reporters Without Borders, out of 180 countries surveyed Estonia ranks 10th, the Czech Republic 13th, Poland 18th and Lithuania 31st in terms of media freedom. All are former Communist countries which have joined the EU. The picture in former Communist countries which have not joined the EU is less pretty. Moldova ranks 72nd, Ukraine 129th and Belarus 157th. This picture is reinforced by Freedom House’s 2015 Human Rights Index. This ranked Poland, Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Estonia as free, whereas Ukraine was ‘Partly free’ and Belarus ‘Not free’. Again the Democratisation Index 2015, published by the Economist Intelligence Unit, ranked Lithuania 38th and Poland 48th in terms of democratisation, whereas Ukraine only managed 88 and Belarus 127th. There is a clear association between EU membership and liberal democratic Government.
One of the most striking developments in European politics since 1970 has been the transformation of the political systems in a good number of European countries, many of which had little or no history of democratic Government, into stable(ish) democracies. In this category we can include the Mediterranean nations of Spain, Portugal and Greece, which escaped from military-authoritarian Governments in the 1970s, and parts of Eastern and South-Eastern Europe which lost their Communist Governments from 1989 onwards. Most have now joined the EU, with Greece joining in 1981, Spain and Portugal in 1986, eight central and Eastern European countries joining in 2004, Romania and Bulgaria joined in 2007 and Croatia becoming a member in 2013.
It’s clear why they all wanted to become members. EU affiliation provided free market access, the protection of a variety of fundamental rights and more generally the promise of a more ‘Western European’ lifestyle. To achieve EU membership however candidate countries are required to fulfil a number of criteria, mostly defined at the European council in Copenhagen in 1993. In brief, according to the European Commission’s website, to become a EU member state a country must have ‘stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities’, ‘a functioning market economy’ and ‘the ability to take on and implement effectively the obligations of membership’.
To be more specific, EU candidates are required to adopt and enforce all current EU rules in 35 policy fields (or Chapters). These Chapters include, for example, ‘Chapter 23: Judiciary and fundamental rights’ and ‘Chapter 24: Justice, freedom and security’, both of which deal with human rights. In short, to become an EU member an applicant country must demonstrate that its political model is broadly liberal-democratic, and considering the perks associated with EU membership, especially for poorer countries, it has a strong incentive to do so. Thus the prize of EU membership played an important role in encouraging Mediterranean and East European countries to move away from authoritarian Government following the overthrow of their respective dictatorships. It’s reasonable to assume that, in the absence of the EU, the political systems of at least some of such countries would be a good deal more authoritarian than they are at present. To the East of the EU are a number of authoritarian or quasi-authoritarian states, such as Belarus, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Ukraine. In the absence of the EU, other East European countries may well have developed similar Governments.
At present, in the likes of Ukraine, Moldova and those Balkan countries which aspire towards EU membership, the EU is a powerful pull-factor encouraging some steps towards liberal-democratic Government. The current Serbian Prime Minister, for example, is from the Serbian Progressive Party, a Conservative Party which supports Serbia’s EU membership. In the absence of the EU it seems likely that Serbia and others would affiliate more openly with Putin’s Russia. The EU also places some restraints on those of its own members who are oscillating in a more authoritarian direction. Hungary under Orban, for example, or Poland under its new nationalist Government. Indeed on 13 January of this year the European Commission launched an inquiry into whether new Polish laws, which weaken the Polish Constitutional Court and increase Government influence over public media, break EU democracy rules.
The evidence is clear that the European Union has done much to promote liberal-democratic forms of Government and peace and international cooperation across the European continent. I hope you share my conviction that this has benefited the citizens of the newly democratised European nations. But, on a more selfish note, it has also benefitted the UK. The reduction in European conflict has stopped us getting dragged into European Wars, as we were in the non-EU nations of Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. Moreover the proliferation of responsible Government which obeys market rules has aided trade and British business, whilst the spread of liberal-democratic political systems has helped to share the burden of protecting democratic Europe onto more nations, whilst reducing the number of potential threats. Considering all that the EU has done to promote civilised Government, and all this has done for Britain, it would be folly to take any steps which might undermine this. Brexit would be just such a step. As a result geo-political factors provide yet more reasons to support Britain’s continued membership of the European Union.