Our Europe, Their Europe

Niki Kortvelyessy, 4th June 2001ce

Have you ever wondered why people in Europe are enthusiastic about the European Union, while most of us in Britain are opposed to it? Why do most Green Parties work for a more united Europe, while the British Greens consider withdrawal?

Western Europe's headlong rush to form a political union, the desperation of the Eastern states to be part of it at any cost, and the suspicion with which all this is viewed by Britain and much of Scandinavia - this is today's Europe. These differences can be traced directly to the very different experiences of and lessons learnt from the two major wars of the 20th century. Those two World Wars were only 21 years apart, and the second one developed out of the first. Both are still within living memory, and it is their legacy that we live with today.

The age group now in charge of our political and economic structures were born during or just after World War Two. Their formative years were spent in the hardship that followed that war, in families who had been traumatised by it, mourning dead relatives and wondering when it would all start again. The age-old hatreds and rivalries, the cultural/racial prejudices and territorial ambitions were still in place, but now sharpened by fear and loss. On top of it all, there were newly in existence weapons that could annihilate not just the combatants and their economic bases, but entire nations, whether antagonistic or neutral.

There had been many peace treaties in the history of Europe, but their terms were easily broken when some state or leader felt powerful enough again. Towards the end of the carnage in the mid 1940s some people came up with the idea of an institution that might prevent war - something more durable than another treaty. Their idea was sweeping in its scope, and daring in its ambition. It was not shared or even understood by all, because the experience of war was not the same for all participants.

That war experience seems to me to fall into two broad categories; 'mainland' Europe into one and the British Isles and Scandinavia into the other.

The War Experience - The Mainland

The war's aftermath is clear in the memory of anyone over fifty - fragmented families, loss of land or property, forfeited youth.

For the losers of the war, ever present but never mentioned was the shame and humiliation: collective and, with time, personal - as citizens for the humbling of their nations, or bitterness for having joined the wrong side; and as individuals for having been willing to overlook injustice or the perversions of warped leaders in the hope of a better tomorrow.

There was also a humbling for those who weren't the losers - France tried but could not forget that their government had collaborated, Italy was a fascist state until it changed sides in the last few years of the war, and neutral states like Belgium and the Netherlands were shown their own insignificance by being invaded.

The resulting loss of pride in identity and community was widespread, though most overwhelming among Germans. Overall there was a sense of the achievements of centuries being wiped away by a few decades of rule by demagogues or fools. Religion, the arts, learning, all the things felt to be civilising features seemed to have given way to savagery.

The sense of guilt and despair was later shared even by those unborn at the time as in every nation young people saw film of crowds welcoming Nazi troops etc, and began to piece together the silent years of their parents' youth. It was these first and second post-war generations who have grown up with a grim determination to rebuild civilised societies and never to allow a recurrence of the factors that led to such torment.

None of this was experienced in Britain.

The War Experience - Britain

As the Nazis were never able to invade Britain, the vast majority of the fighting, the human carnage and the material damage took place in mainland Europe and British citizens heard and read about them, whereas Europeans were experiencing them. This is not to belittle the bombing of London or Coventry, but the scale of what the average Briton experienced as contrasted with the average European, the impact of the war was quite different.

From the Eastern coast of the English Channel to the Black Sea the troops marched, leaving behind them scorched earth and corpses. Swarms of refugees fled as the fronts moved, never sure whether they were on friendly or hostile territory. Unlike Britain, there were only a few safe places to evacuate the children for the very few - the Kindertransport saved only a few thousand.

In many ways the war brought hardship to the British people, but not on the scale of the Europeans. While they died of starvation, the British had adequate food, fairly rationed. On the mainland the fronts rolled back and forth ravaging town and country, what warfare didn't destroy was devoured or requisitioned by troops. In Britain, though the big cities were bombed, the rural areas continued to function, crops were harvested and city children given refuge. Everywhere families were fractured through death and injury, but in Britain they ultimately could feel pride and purpose in their sacrifice. For European families there was a sense of futility.

Once the troops returned, Britain had everything to celebrate, and though economically ground down by the war, its people's spirit was unbroken. There were no lost territories, no new borders to divide families, just the continued reassurance of a protecting coast. There was nothing to compare with the shame and humiliation, no reassessment of the popular soul, no questioning of identity that was the European experience.

I respect the role that Britain and its people played, although I have some questions about the later presentation of those years to subsequent generations. The history of World War II was not taught to British schoolchildren, leaving people to learn their own history from films and novels - simplified and sanitised fictional impressions of goodies and baddies. Britain's role was magnified and that of other major players ignored or downplayed: three generations grew up believing that Britain 'won the war' singlehanded, with a bit of help from the USA.

It was perhaps expedient for the purposes of the Cold War that the role of the Soviet Union was ignored, but I feel it is wrong that twenty million Soviet dead and devastation on an unprecedented scale continues to go unmentioned and unthanked, especially as it is clear that without the Soviet Union's huge effort from the East Hitler could well have overrun Britain. Some recognition of their role is overdue, whatever reprehensible actions followed their victory in the East.

So, without the need for remorse and despair, without universal experience of devastation, there was no equivalent determination on the British side for wholesale change to the institutions of international relations. Britain did not learn - didn't need to learn - a lesson similar to the one learned by the mainland European peoples. (It is significant that those states which were least affected by the war - Ireland, most of Scandinavia, Switzerland - also tend to share a detached view of the later developments in Europe).

The Lessons

The Europeans drew the conclusion that it was more than the territorial ambitions and economic competitiveness of great powers that led to conflict. Nation states have borders which, though they may create communities, also create outsiders - Them and Us - and that disconnection combined with economic competition leads to arrogant nationalism which is easily whipped into aggressive chauvinism. European wars all had their origins in this foul combination, and so something more than yet another peace treaty was sought. An old idea - that of a union of the states of Europe - was revived.

If the nation states with their rigidly protected physical as well as economic borders were the problem (or at least a large part of it), and competition in trade and commerce exacerbated the problem, then borders and competition had to go. The rich and strategic coal and steel industry of the Ruhr - on the common border of France and Germany, and the basis for the economic and military strength of both - was an obvious early candidate for shared control. When the co-operation seemed to work in the crucial early years of post-war reconstruction, it was a model applied to other industries. Soon neighbouring states asked to join, with both economic and military security in mind. A structure was agreed which attempted to:
- abolish nationalism, by diminishing the power of the nation state
- weaken the importance of borders and reduce sovereignty to reduce 'great powerism'
- pool resources to make the states economically interdependent, resulting in the rich states helping the poor ones and not just their 'own' poor.

The institutions that were to try to deliver these aims were intended to create a Union of equals, recognising only size of population in the relative weight of votes:
- a Parliament, directly accountable to the people separately from the national government (the European Parliament)
- a powerful civil service with no party or national loyalty (the Commission)
- national governments representatives as just one layer in this complex structure. While recognising their democratic legitimacy in giving this layer the decision-making role, the leadership function (the Presidency) was only to be held by each for a very short time, in pre-determined rotation.

Those were heady, visionary days. Exactly the same vision born of the identical anguish formed the United Nations at about the same time for the same purpose. The European Community and the United Nations inspired the postwar generations and stimulated the co-operative and communitarian ethos of the following decades. This was the ethos in which the Green Parties of Western Europe were formed and it is axiomatic to most of them to this day.

Their Europe

The Union to which enlightened Europeans - from Greens to Christian Democrats and all in between - aspired was to build was not just a peaceful but an equitable society. That was the spirit of the Treaty of Rome, which aimed at raising the poorest and least advanced peoples by redistributing economic resources, ensuring that the weakest could fairly compete with the strongest, and that by common agreement the members could progressively raise the social and democratic standards of their citizens.

Our Europe

The last Tory government's position when seen from this perspective was classically nationalist and explains their exclusion from the European Christian Democratic family. New Labour's early rhetoric raised hopes among the 'partners' but by now it is clear that Tony Blair has also not internalised the lessons of history. At the end of WW2, British leaders did not understand the peace ideal, and they did not need to. They needed a trading bloc to compensate for the loss of colonial markets, they saw the European Common Market as no more than that, and presented it thus to the British people. The stage was set for mutual incomprehension as Europeans worked for Shangri-La while the British wanted to sell things.

The European entity - a peace project using common economic interests as glue - is now being overwhelmed by those same economic interests. Gradually the interests of the market are overtaking and outpacing the communitarian objectives. The founders conceived the Union to bond the people, yet the neo-liberal dogma which the EU today zealously advocates has the result of dividing not nations but citizens. Having reduced the significance of borders, the fracture lines today are within societies. As again unemployment and dire poverty afflict the continent, the same old pre-war arguments can be heard, seeking foreign scapegoats and demanding special privileges for insiders over outsiders. The potential for internal conflict is rising, pogroms are again a feature of European life.

More frightening still is the rise of a young generation which resents having to atone for another generation's war, has never known anything but stability and thus does not value it, and is now economically insecure and angry. Again the politicians of hate and prejudice appear to cater to its pain.

To sum up: we live in two Europes simultaneously, with opposing values and contradictory goals - the new European conflict.

- A social Europe of peace vision, working for higher standards in human values, rights, democracy;
- An economic Europe with ambitions to be a competitor to the superpowers, sacrificing human welfare for profit and supremacy.

For the Greens on the continent, the Social Europe remains the goal worth fighting for. In Britain the Greens have only ever understood Economic Europe and have fought against it. I hope this brief insight into our different ways of looking at our common Europe will help us work together to prevent future generations having to learn the same lessons all over again.