Whither European unity? Andrew Wierzbicki argues the case for the European Union, decries the damage done by Brexit and emphasises the importance of Europe for New Zealand.

Author:Wierzbicki, Andrew
 
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The European Union both in its earlier incarnations and currently has been a force for stability and development in Europe since the devastation that was the Second World War. But it is currently facing serious challenges not the least the impending departure of Britain. From both a historical and contemporary perspective, New Zealand has a very real interest in a strong European Union. New Zealand ministers and officials should use what influence they have to push the European Union and Britain to reach an amicable agreement on their future relationship.

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We are in the midst of the centenary remembrances of the great battles that took place on French and Belgian soil in the First World War. The thousands of soldiers' names on graves and memorials across these two countries are a stark reminder of what Europe, and Britain and her allies, went through at this time. And 25 years later it was all repeated again in the Second World War.

No wonder that following the Second World War, there were European and British leaders who looked to build new institutions which, if not preventing a repeat of these cataclysms, would at least make it much less likely that such events could ever again engulf Europe and Britain. (For the purposes of this article I treat Europe/the European Union and Britain separately.)

Their focus was on binding nations together to work on what they had in common, rather than on what separated them. Too often in the past Europe's leaders had trumpeted national jealousies, ethnic prejudices, and territorial ambitions.

The new leaders instead promoted co-operation, unity, and respect. They included men like West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, French President Charles de Gaulle, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman, French economist Jean Monnet, Belgian Foreign Minister Paul-Henri Spaak and Britain's Prime Minister Winston Churchill. (1) And the United States' Secretary of State George Marshall, after whom the Marshall Plan for rebuilding Europe was named, should also not be forgotten.

It is through their efforts, and of others, that the European Union is what it is today. It began small with the establishment by Belgium, France, the then Federal Republic of Germany, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951 by the Treaty of Paris. This was followed by the more wide-ranging Treaty of Rome in 1957. Much earlier, in 1944, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands had set the groundwork in motion in London with their agreement of the Benelux Treaty aiming for the elimination of all import tariffs between their countries once the Second World War ended.

Historic rapprochement

The significance of the Treaty of Paris cannot be over-emphasised. As has been said: 'With this historic rapprochement between France and Germany, Europe took a giant step away from centuries of ruinous nationalism.' (2) Through subsequent country enlargements as well as expansion of the mandate, today's European Union has 28 members, for the moment still including Britain, and with an extensive mandate governing a range of policy areas including economic, social, legal and political.

The European Union has unquestionably brought stability and development to Europe. It has played an especially important role in embracing former countries of Eastern Europe, which had lived under Soviet domination for 45 years. But today's European Union is facing serious challenges:

* Britain's intended exit from membership of the European Union.

* Austria's and Hungary's open challenge to the European Union's common border.

* The need for the Netherlands, France, Austria, Hungary and Poland to name but a few of the EU members to grapple with the...

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