David Keys

The elephant in the room in the EU referendum

For weeks now, the EU referendum has dominated the headlines. The economy and migration have been the key issues – but all the while there’s been a largely unnoticed elephant in the room.

For perhaps the biggest question of all is what the wider political and geopolitical consequences of a Brexit could be – and whether a ‘leave’ vote next Thursday could bolster and encourage the far right throughout Europe.

Without doubt, a Brexit decision on June 23 will dramatically increase the chances of similar referenda being held in other European countries. The extreme right, which has been calling for such referenda in France, Germany, Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands, would without doubt be the political beneficiaries of such exit campaigns, let alone exit decisions.

By triggering other referenda elsewhere in Europe, a UK departure seriously risks destabilising our continent.

If other nations follow suit – and there’s a reasonable chance that they will – the EU will simply begin to unravel.

For the past six decades, the EU and its immediate predecessors have helped bind Europe together.

If we vote to leave, we risk bringing the post-war European settlement to an end. We in Britain, and indeed our continent as a whole, would then be entering uncharted waters.

Over recent years, the far right has gained ground throughout Europe. Further EU crises (or indeed eventual total breakup), triggered by a Brexit vote, will encourage national rivalries and further increase support for ultra-nationalist far right movements across our continent. Already in Austria this year the ultra-right failed to win the country’s presidency by a mere whisker. In France, the Front National won 28% in elections last year – and now harbours presidential hopes. In Hungary, the ultra-right has become a major force (gaining 20% in elections in 2014).

Politics abhors a vacuum. If the pan-European pro-EU consensus of the past few decades collapses following a Brexit, extreme rightist ultranationalist elements will inevitably fill the ideological void – and some of those movements have very worrying anti-Semitic dimensions.

Without an EU to knit our continent together, politically centrifugal forces will be free to pull it apart. For that is the tragic lesson from history.

Apart from the post-war period (the era of the EU and its predecessors) and much of the 19th century (when a previous pan-European arrangement – the so-called ‘Concert of Europe’ – helped ensure relative peace), some 80% of our continent’s history over the past 500 years has been dominated by political division and military conflict. In 25 major wars, each often involving at least a dozen countries (often including England/Britain) more than 25 million people died – and that’s, of course, not including the 60 million who died on European soil during our continent’s most dysfunctional era – the early to mid 20th century.

Here are the chilling details :

During the 16th century, there were a grand total of ten major European wars, each involving, on average, seven countries/states. More than four million people were killed, equal to some five percent of total European population at that time.

The 17th century saw only three major European wars (each involving, on average, 12 countries) – but they were lengthy and desperate struggles (over ten million deaths – equal to some ten percent of average population at the time) and accounted for 44 percent of the century.

During the long 18th century (1700 to the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815), nine very substantial conflicts, each involving, on average, 13 countries, killed 9.5 million people, equal to around six percent of average population at the time.

Partly courtesy of a pan-European cooperation system (the so-called ‘Concert of Europe’), the extended post-Napoleonic 19th-century (1815 to the outbreak of the Great War in 1914), experienced much less conflict on our continent, unlike many other parts of our planet. For, during that 99 year long epoch, Europe experienced only two really major wars (killing in total up to a million people – equivalent to much less than 1% of average population at the time), each involving, on average, just three countries.

After the gradual late 19th century erosion of European cooperation (and, in 1914, the total collapse of European stability), a period of unprecedentedly violent conflict began. Over the next three decades, the two world wars took 90 million lives, two-thirds of which were lost in Europe (ie.,equal to around 13 % of our continent’s average population in those decades).

Relative tranquility on our continent since 1945 has perhaps lulled us into believing that stability is the natural state of affairs. Tragically history tells us that that has not normally been the case.

So, conceivably, the biggest problem on Thursday may sadly be that far too many people will have forgotten what a destabilized dysfunctional Europe can look like – and what that sort of Europe’s ideological consequences are likely to be.

About the Author
David Keys is a journalist specializing in archaeology, history and the historical backgrounds to modern international political and other crises.
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