The experience of six decades of closer integration of a major part of a continent under the European Union has important lessons for the entire world and the future of humanity.
There are several contexts in which the lessons of this important experiment can be seen. One of these is its ability to check war. Wars among nations of Europe had been extremely destructive. The three decades from 1914 to 1945 had been the most destructive, as the fires of European wars spread far and wide to engulf most parts of the world.
So, it was not at all surprising for statesmen and wise women of Europe to start exploring various possibilities of ending wars with the continent on a more durable basis. In this objective, the European Union appears to have succeeded during the last decades as far as its member states are concerned. Leading countries like Germany, France, Italy and Britain which have fought so many wars did not come even close to armed conflict during the last 60 years as these countries were united under the European Union, even if Britain is on the verge of leaving now.
While this is an important achievement, it comes with important limitations and questions. The fact that these leading nations of Europe did not fight among themselves does not imply that there were no destructive wars within Europe. The break-up of the former Yugoslavia was accompanied by terrible (yet clearly avoidable) violence and highly unjust actions. The existence of the EU could not prevent this.
What is worse is that leading EU nations (notably Britain and France) participated in unjust and unnecessary invasions or interventions in countries like Iraq and Libya. So, while they may not have fought wars among themselves, they still are partly responsible for avoidable deaths of several hundred thousand people (counting the reliably documented direct and indirect death toll of these highly tragic and unjust invasions and interventions) in unjustified and avoidable wars. To date there is no adequate expression of regret for this at an official level, and hence no credible initiative for compensatory humanitarian actions.
This highlights the limits of the anti-war vision of European Union. There is certainly a commitment to avoid internal destruction and loss of life, but there is no accompanying commitment to avoid war-related loss of life outside the secure interiors of European Union. Even if this loss of life is caused by EU nations, there is hardly any commitment on the part of the Union to check this in time, or later to admit the mistake and take compensatory action.
This also reflected in the limited willingness to accept refugees of the wars fought elsewhere for which EU nations had at least limited responsibility. The violence unleashed on Iraq, Libya and Afghanistan created desperate refugees within there countries and in some cases (like Libya) the impacts spilled over to neighbouring poorer countries which had important sources of livelihood in the invaded countries. Sometimes there have been direct invasions and sometimes civil war-like situations have been triggered.
In the context of economic integration there have been increasing protests about the unjust handling of the crisis in member countries like Greece and it has been stated that distress of the people here could have been reduced greatly by better handling of crisis situations by the EU. The larger question to be asked is whether the EU has really contributed to creation of a more equal and just world economy, and the essential reforms needed for this. Has it contributed to the restructuring of the international finance and trade institutions which is needed to create a more just and equal world economy? The answer regrettably is in the negative.
Such wider questions become even more important when raised in the context of the most important survival issues that have now become the biggest threat for all life on our planet. Has the EU made exceptional contributions to checking the most important survival threats such as climate change, rapid biodiversity loss, proliferation of nuclear weapons and robot weapons (as well as other weapons of mass destruction)? Here the answer is not entirely negative as some good initiatives have indeed come from the EU. But on the whole the answer is in the negative.
This leads to the larger context – that the integrative process of the European Union has only a limited vision and hence limited impact on the creation of a better world. In the context of multi-dimensional, civilisational crises facing the world, the agenda of the EU seems even more limited than it appeared about four or five decades ago.
Even in terms of its aid and cooperation programmes with other countries these aspects are not emphasised, while rather easily a big and significant beginning could have been made with a relatively small contribution. This is because there is not adequate realisation of these larger and more important objectives. Instead one sees a narrow outlook based on creating a secure situation for a relatively smaller part of the world (even within this small part of the world a secure existence for some of the better- off sections). This narrow vision in fact creates more problems for the European Union, but this link is not realized and appreciated adequately by EU bosses. This limited vision stands in the way of realising the potential of the EU in playing a historical role in resolving the civilisational and survival crisis facing the world today.
At the time when the discourse is largely concentrated on Brexit, it may be useful to look also at some of these wider lessons from European Union experiences.
(The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives)