Preserving Europe’s Peace Dividend

How much is Peace worth? Ask anyone who has experienced war and, passed a moment of puzzlement where your interlocutor will ponder whether to take the question seriously, he will probably laugh. Rightly so. To those, peace is invaluable: bombs landing in their backyard not only took away their flowers and trees; they broke their families and killed their friends; they put an abrupt end to their world, creating psychological wounds that would hardly heal and instigating a degree of mistrust that would take generations to fade. Bombs put men and societies to their knees.

For us, Europeans born well after WWII, those images and feelings are fortunately not part of our collective memory. But it has an unfortunate consequence: since we haven’t seen our immediate environment transformed in battlefield, we take peace – and its associated benefits – for granted. And by failing to consciously think about its institutionalization, we open the door to the creation of institutions that will eventually facilitate war.

Yet, if History is any guide to us, peace is higly valuable: it has presided to all sus- tained process of wealth creation, social progress and intellectual development. Economists talk about a Peace Dividend – the fact that when an economy is not at peace, it can allocate (human, physical, financial,…) resources to sectors that ought to create more value and well-being for its citizens. Europe, which has enjoyed such a dividend for nearly seventy years, is an obvious case in point. As the war ended and as the International Community took steps to “clean the battlefield”, the benefits of Peace started to flow through its veins: Soviet tanks on the Helden Platz in Vienna were replaced by street shops and joyful citizens, interstate business resumed and trust between European people (re)emerged.

Today, this European Peace Dividend is at risk. Successive crises have created multiple divides among European nations and undermined people’s confidence in the only institu- tion that has ever brought sustained peace to their lands: the European Union. Moreover, external pressures have reinforced these internal dissensions: the Union is threatened on its north-eastern (direct diplomatic an military intimidation from Moscow), eastern (conflict in Ukraine) and southern (Libya) borders. Not even mentioning the slightly more remote but no less dangerous threat represented by ISIS.

So far, the EU has failed to provide a fully convincing answer to those issues. This doesn’t mean it is not trying hard. Since the Juncker Commission took office, things have changed in Brussels. On nearly all matters, this Commission has adopted a more politically pragmatic approach, prioritising direct engagement with Member States over Brussels-based political dogmatism, and acknowledging criticism while creating space for expression of Member States’ national sensitivities.

Yet, this will still leave many in doubt as to the relevance of the European Union. Those will continue to argue that, in many ways, it has failed to deliver and is no longer fit for purpose. Yet, I would argue otherwise, for the EU hasn’t failed on its primary purpose: delivering peace to a continent that has been at war since the dawn of time. Dismantling the only institution that has ever succeded in making war not “not merely unthinkable but materially impossible”, is not a risk I want to take.