The EU is not an end in itself, but a means to peace

Updated: Mar 7, 2019

The EU should not pursue any deeper integration but rather focus on preventing war in Europe.

Boudewijn de Bruin argues that many people think that the EU has made war in Europe “unthinkable”. These commentators lack imagination and historical awareness (think the Balkan war) and/or unjustifiably consider the more privileged parts of Europe only. In fact, we have war in Europe at the moment (think Ukraine). Also, Europeans have very different social, cultural, and political attitudes. A principled, top-down harmonisation of these attitudes may well backfire and alienate Europeans from the European project (think Brexit). Hence, we need a pragmatic approach with less rather than more policymaking.


“Peace reigns rarely everywhere in Europe.” Clausewitz, On War
“Never again – that is Europe!” Robert Menasse, The Capital

In 2012, the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize. The Norwegian Nobel Committee thought that the “stabilizing part played by the EU [had] helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace”. This echoed an oft-quoted statement of one the founders of the European idea, Robert Schuman, who in 1950 had said that the European community was meant to make “any war between France and Germany […] not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible”. To accomplish that aim, a federation would be necessary, even though Schuman admitted that it would not be made “all at once, or according to a single, general plan”. Rather, he thought that “de facto solidarity” among Europeans would only arise slowly through “concrete achievements”.

To maintain today that war in Europe is “unthinkable” is not just irresponsibly unimaginative. In fact, it blatantly ignores what is happening right now in Ukraine, Georgia, etc. To think today that the community’s many concrete achievements have led, or will soon lead, to “de facto solidarity” is overoptimistic. And to credit the EU for peace in Europe is to shut one’s eyes to the fact that it has so far only flourished with background protection from NATO – i.e. primarily the US.

The British historian Tony Judt once wrote: “The past, having once happened, leaves a record and a memory, and that memory is one of the reasons why the things it recalls will not simply be repeated. But it is also true that people can forget to remember – or, perhaps, forget to forget – and that as we move further away from 1945, the reasons why it seemed so important to build something different will be less pressing. That is why we must remind ourselves not just that real gains have been made, but that the European community which helped to make them was a means, not an end.”

Remembering is not just keeping the past alive. It is also using our memories to help us imagine a future – a future we want, but also futures we do not want. Remembering to see the EU as a means rather than an end helps us to see the most important aim of the community: never again war. Seeing the EU as a means to that end puts a constraint on EU policy more than it inspires new policy. It means that the EU is less an institution to solve social issues; that if you propose policy, you should ask whether it helps or harms the prospect of peace; that if it harms, or if there are more efficient ways to help, you should abandon the policy. For if we inflate expectations of what the EU can accomplish for us, we risk blowing the whole thing up.

What practical conclusion should we draw from remembering history? What would it mean in practice to remember that peace is what should drive the EU, and that this should always inform policy decisions? To begin with, a break on social and cultural integration. People consider all sorts of future policies that the EU does not need. There is a more constructive side to my proposal, though. I am quite sympathetic to the idea of a European army defended in another contribution to this volume. Indeed, in a speech delivered in Strasbourg in 1950, Winston Churchill voiced his support for “the immediate creation of a European Army under a unified command, and in which we should all bear a worthy and honourable part”. I am inclined to think that conscription for men and women in the EU would be a less elitist approach to integration than the Erasmus programme, which only benefits students. But it is likely to meet so much resistance from EU citizens that I would not push hard for it.

More importantly, however, a focus on peace may make us reconsider relations with non-EU states. It would be good to think more imaginatively about enlarging the EU southwards. Why exclude Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey? Or we could think more cautiously about moving eastwards. It would also be good to think more strategically about doing business with non-EU states. Consider Russia: Germany relies on Russian gas and has extensive business relations with Russia. Russian money of questionable origin buys up European assets from real estate to football clubs. Yet Russia is no friend of the EU; it only recently downed a civilian airplane, killing scores of EU citizens. The EU looks away from Russian aggression, however, and that is dangerous. We need to think more strategically here (as we have to do when we deal with Saudi Arabia, Iran, China, etc).

In the 80 years that preceded the Schuman Declaration, France and Germany fought three times; they have never fought in the 70 years thereafter. The European Coal and Steel Community was set up with peace as its aim. The mechanism was clever, as it attempted to coordinate the production and export of resources essential to warfare. Today, the thought of any future war between France and Germany stretches the imagination to absurdity. Not only generals, however, famously tend to fight the last war and to be surprised by the next one. We should use our strategic imagination to detect potential future wars, admitting that our world is very different from Schuman’s.

The downside of integration Economic integration among EU members and associates may alienate others. In the 1950s, Denmark was a large agricultural exporter, but it suffered dramatically from the trade barriers established by the community in the 1960s. Denmark was too small to hit back. It grudgingly joined in 1973. Or take Ukraine: Many observers believe that the EU’s push for a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA) with Ukraine provoked Russia’s annexation of Crimea and intervention in Ukraine’s eastern provinces. The examples show that economic integration may create tensions with neighbours. Economic integration is not even always beneficial to those that are part of it. Trade liberalisation was no boon to the car industry in Ukraine. It was car producers in EU member states that benefited most, as they gained access to a new market in which they outcompeted the locals. Thinking about the EU is often based too much on the profit motive, the idea being that where there is growth, there cannot be war. We should not be making profits at all costs, though.

NATO deserves much credit for guaranteeing the peace in Europe. After the Second World War, NATO and the forerunners of the present EU were both mostly concerned with war prevention, with the EEC/EC/EU more focused on building a warm peace among its members, and NATO on keeping the cold peace with Russia. But the EU could only flourish given the background military protection of NATO, of which the US is by far the most significant contributor. Until the 1990s, the US (and other NATO members) had an enormous military presence in West Germany. If Germany had started a war again, the US would have intervened – with or without economic integration.

One might object: If NATO rather than the EU is guaranteeing peace in Europe, why not abandon the EU? Since the collapse of communism, NATO has been struggling to define itself. US President Donald Trump has called NATO “obsolete” (fortunately, he retracted the statement). The US is the main contributor to NATO. Many other NATO members are reluctant to increase their contributions, which understandably frustrates the US. If US frustration grows, and if other members keep paying less than they should, NATO risks becoming unreliable. How assured can we be that if Russian troops clandestinely entered the Baltics the way they did Ukraine, NATO would actually send troops to their defence?

Except perhaps for France and the UK, European countries do not spend a lot of time thinking about defence strategy. For many decades, the US protected them as bodyguards looking after the sandpit. The fall of the Berlin Wall should have ended our inaction, but it did not. And six EU member states aren’t even in NATO (Austria, Cyprus, Finland, Ireland, Malta and Sweden) – they need the EU. The limits of integration Some hold that war becomes less likely the more people depend on each other economically, and the more they are alike socially and culturally. Some find a new civil war in the US difficult to imagine. Even if they are right about the US, it does not prove much for Europe. The EU is no United States of Europe and might never be. The EU is much less homogenous than the US, and not only in terms of language and culture. Gross Domestic Product per capita in the richest EU member state, Luxembourg, is five times larger than in the poorest member state, Bulgaria; in the US, the difference between the richest and poorest state is only a factor of two. Europeans have freedom of movement for goods, services, people, and capital, but not all experience this as a level playing field. For some, the field is more equal than for others.

Economic integration may be a justifiable goal if it is motivated by a concern for equal freedom of EU citizens. Social and cultural integration, by contrast, are uninteresting goals. Europeans listened to the same music in the Middle Ages, followed the same rites, heard the same stories, and learned the same things. Courts, religions, schools, universities, and guilds constituted an intricately integrated network of social and cultural ties from Scandinavia to the Iberian Peninsula, and from the British Isles to the Baltics and beyond. But despite such integration, European powers were rarely at peace with each other.

Perhaps we need more integration then? Many people wish for a Europe united around a shared ideology of liberal democracy, free trade, human rights, and rule of law. This is to be applauded. The political reality is different, though. It is an illusion to think that better public relations might change this for the better, even though certainly many EU citizens are culpably ignorant about what the EU has done for them and what their lives would look like without it. The widespread dislike of European politics is more difficult to explain and more complex to set right – if there is something to set right. It may be different in the long run, but for the time being we must accept that Europeans have wildly divergent political views. We therefore need a pragmatic, not a principled approach, and this will often, though not always, mean less rather than more policymaking.

Again, we risk alienating the excluded. Morocco applied for membership in 1987, but was rejected because it was not considered a European country. Turkey submitted its application in the same year, and has been left dangling ever since. Why take such a narrow conception of what should count as European? Because of different social or cultural identities? We might have been better off had both countries been admitted long ago.

Some objections from the Twelve Stars debate The Twelve Stars online debate produced objections like this: Should the EU not be more ambitious than just preventing war? Big challenges lie ahead of us. Can we tackle climate change? Will there be meaningful work for all of us when artificial intelligence takes over? How should we deal with mass migration? How can we feed a growing world population? Is it not the role of the EU to spread human rights globally, to support democracy, to fight xenophobia and corruption? A narrow focus on peace in Europe may lead directly to unjustifiable isolationism.

These are important points. But we should consider what the best ways to address them are and who is best positioned to act. The EU has an unimpressive track record in many areas. If it had taken environmental concerns seriously, subsidies for the car industry and airlines would have been abandoned; it would have helped create a dense, reliable, and superfast train network throughout Europe. Subsidies for unsustainable agriculture would no longer exist. Supporting democracy? When the Bosnian crisis started in 1991, then-President of the Council of the European Union Jacques Poos famously said “This is the hour of Europe”. It should have been. Just as in other crises, however, the EU largely kept silent, and when it did act, this was often through British leadership, which it is now about to lose.


Further Reading

Judt, Tony. A Grand Illusion? An Essay on Europe. New York: NYU Press, 2011.


Lavanex, Sandra. “On the fringes of the European peace project: The neighbourhood policy’s functionalist hubris and political myopia.” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19 (1): 63–76, 2017.


Patel, Kiran Klaus. “Who was saving whom? The European Community and the Cold War, 1960s 1970s.” The British Journal of Politics and International Relations 19 (1): 29–47, 2017.


Online Debate

On 31 July 2018, Boudewijn de Bruin defended his proposal in the Twelve Stars debate. The main objections are presented below. Rebuttals can be followed in the online debate.


Background Research

Read up on current initiatives and proposals concerning this topic in our background briefing.


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