The EU Referendum: “We will burn it all down” – War, Blackmail and the Case for the European Union

This is a post in our EU referendum forum. Click here for the introduction with links to all the contributions.


Our next guest contributor to the EU forum is Philip Cunliffe. Philip is Senior Lecturer in International Conflict at the University of Kent and editor-in-chief of the journal International Peacekeeping. He is co-editor, with Chris Bickerton and Alex Gourevitch, of Politics Without Sovereignty (UCL Press, 2007), and author of Legions of Peace: UN Peacekeepers from the Global South (Hurst, 2014).  His most recent book, co-edited with Kai Michael Kenkel, is Brazil as a Rising Power: Intervention Norms and the Contestation of Global Order (Routledge, 2016).


It’s often heard that the European Union (EU) is a peace project – an institution engineered to bring peace, prosperity and stability to a war-torn continent that was at the core of global conflict over the last century. This was the animus behind UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s speech on 9 May 2016, in which he claimed that Britain leaving the EU could lead to renewed rivalries, geopolitical tension and ultimately war in Europe. It is one of the most powerful, popular and enduring claims given in defence of the EU and one that drastically raises the political stakes in the debate over Brexit.

Given that this claim comes from our political leaders, it is a remarkably menacing way of eliciting popular support: Vote for us, they seem to be saying, vote for the European Union, or war will be the result ... That political elites could threaten voters so brazenly while implying their own powerlessness to control the course of events at the same time speaks to the strength of popular (mis)conceptions about the origins of conflict in Europe.

A screenshot from "Paxman in Brussels" (BBC), shot in the EU visitors' centre (h/t Ben Pile)

A screenshot from “Paxman in Brussels” (BBC), shot in the EU visitors’ centre (h/t Ben Pile)

The Myth of Democratic War and EU Peacemaking

That stylised story about war in Europe goes something like this: atavistic forces of popular and demagogic nationalism have repeatedly torn Europe apart over the last two centuries, sweeping away the efforts of statesmen and diplomats to control and defuse crises, leading to international competition, rivalry and eventually war, genocide, ethnic cleansing and totalitarianism. An image that might illustrate this sorry tale would be that of the massive crowds rallying in public squares to cheer the news of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914.

From this experience, so the story goes, we learned the dangers of popular and unruly mass politics. In response, we had to embed carefully constructed institutions of international collaboration and institutional regulation into our political systems. Hence the origins of the EU in the European Coal and Steel Community, which removed control over the industries of twentieth-century war-making from reckless national politicians.

Like many good stories, this one also has the structure of the tutelary fable in which the designs of hapless, tragic heroes (noble political leaders, well-meaning diplomats) are swept away by dark, impersonal forces of irrationality, hysteria and nationalist passion (the masses). In the fable, nationalism is the dark side of democracy –which needs to be carefully controlled and put somewhere dark, safe and hidden from public view.

The Real Causes of European War

What makes this story a fable is the role that nationalism plays in the tale as the evil outside force, when nationalism was, in fact, an artefact of ruling class political control.

The European mass nationalism that emerged in the late nineteenth century was deliberately crafted and manipulated by the likes of Cavour, Bismarck, Disraeli and the French Third Republic in order to centralise political loyalty in states that were engaged in projects of nation-building, geopolitical rivalry and imperial expansion. The notion that statesmen and diplomats were powerless before the forces of mass democracy is a self-serving elite conceit. It was nationalistic middle classes, powerful bankers and industrialists, and aristocratic ruling elites who set Europe ablaze in their pursuit of martial glory, imperial supremacy and the drive to capture new markets and resources.

If we strip away the fable about the dangers of democracy, what European politicians are really saying when they pontificate about peace is this: if you do not support us, we will take you all to war again. The historical sociologist Charles Tilly famously compared the process of state-formation to a criminal racket: populations were extorted into paying protection money to the very same violent, feudal gangs from whom they needed protection in the first place. The structures of the EU seem to be built on the same racketeering logic, inverted. The very same groups who, historically, have repeatedly led us to war are offering to protect us against war by threatening to go to war again – while blaming mass politics for being intrinsically belligerent and nationalistic.

All this comes from the same EU leaders who dream of unified European armies patrolling the streets of Kinshasa and Timbuktu, of European navies policing the Mediterranean against migrants, and of European air forces ranging across the skies of Libya (again). The leaders who warn us about our warlike instincts are the same leaders who are committed to the world’s most powerful military alliance, NATO, and who take it as their right and duty to launch repeated wars across Africa as and when they please. These are the same leaders who wish to preserve European imperial prestige by upgrading into a collective superpower, so that they can compete with the US and China on the global stage. These are the same leaders who recklessly blundered into a proxy war with Russia in Ukraine, who boast about their commitment to military spending and to militarising relations with Russia further. These are the leaders who warn us about the dangers of war in Europe, should we not support their ‘peace project’.

The best historic guarantee of peace remains closing the gap between executive power and democratic control – exactly the gap that the EU has sought to widen as far as possible. It is high time we refused to be blackmailed any longer.

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6 thoughts on “The EU Referendum: “We will burn it all down” – War, Blackmail and the Case for the European Union

  1. I may be coming from a very different perspective (I’m French and was taught the EU at school in France and then at university in France and Germany – and frankly, one of the things that strikes me about the current debate in the UK is how little people have been taught about the EU… which makes them all the more liable to believe a lot of the crap published in Murdoch’s press) but I feel you are over-complicating the ‘EU as a tool against European wars’ discourse, and in so doing, making it a lot more anti-nationalism/populism/people than it is. What I was taught was that, rather than crushing the enemy further (as had been done with the post-WWI Versailles treaty), we should build a web of inter-dependence that would ensure we had common economic interests but also that we all knew and understood each other better… so that we weren’t tempted to go to war again. Frankly, from an individual point of view, in a family that was rather anti-German and had suffered in both wars, it has worked.
    What also bothers me about the ‘EU democratic deficit’ argument (and let me be clear: I agree that is the EU’s biggest problem, and one it doesn’t seem in a hurry to solve) is that it seems to assume that democratic control is working in our individual states and that it is 1) a good guarantee against populism, nationalism and/or war, and 2) a good protection against the domination of our politics by big corporations and banks (an argument often found in left-wing Brexit literature). Not to mention the fact that most EU policies are still made by EU governments who are democratically elected… and centre-right in their vast majority!

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    • But who is ‘we’ when you say ‘so that we weren’t tempted to go to war again’?

      I don’t think it’s me. I don’t know how to send Britain to war, even if I wanted to.

      To you, are ‘we’ Britain, France, Germany, etc.?

      But each country is full of lots of different people, isn’t it? Britain isn’t ‘Britain’ and France isn’t ‘France’. It’s not all John Bulls and Mariannes.

      Inside each country are pretty big divisions, political and economic and social ones. The most important one is probably between rulers and ruled in each country.

      Who goes to war? It isn’t ‘France’ and ‘Germany’, it’s the political rulers of France and Germany who have to take the decisions to go to war and put them into effect. The people may follow them, or oppose the war, or some may follow and some oppose.

      I know perfectly well I don’t want to go to war again. But do my rulers in the British government?

      So when our rulers say ‘Support the EU or there’ll be war’, the question is: who’s going to take that decision to go to war? Not me. It’s our rulers who control whether we go to war or not.

      So in effect our rulers are saying: ‘Do what we tell you and support us, or we, your rulers, will start another war.’ Because war is what governments do, and our rulers rule our governments.

      Or that’s what I was getting from the article, anyway, which I liked.

      And then you seem to be saying that the democratic deficit isn’t a problem because democracy isn’t good in the first place? (You imply it brings populism, nationalism, war, and domination of politics by big corporations and banks. Is it just me, or are we getting quite a lot of that right now, with the EU in charge?)

      I’m afraid I’m simply on the other side of the argument there. Democracy gets the thumbs up from me.

      I suppose because I have a basic faith in the potential of your standard common or garden human beings, with good political leadership and organization, to overcome nationalism, war and the power of big capitalists, in a way that our rulers and elites have proven fairly conclusively that they don’t.

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      • I was just saying that I find dismissing the pacific idealism that prevailed when the European Coal and Steel Community was created and that still prevails in the EU today, just because the anti-war sentiment is used as an anti-Brexit threat, very problematic. And I also wanted to alert to the fact that the arguments developed here are very Britain-centred and do not reflect my own experience in continental Europe (where the two word wars are also seen in a very different light, possibly because we experienced them directly, on our territories, but also because we lost and were then forced to live together again because of our common continental borders).
        As for democracy, I certainly wouldn’t dispute the fact that it is the best regime type that exists at the moment, but it certainly is very imperfect, including with regards to declaring war. Do we not know of many examples of democratically-elected rulers who went to war, either with the support of their people (Hitler is a rather obvious example) or without (Blair comes to mind)? I continue to think, therefore, that the best guarantee of peace is not just democracy, but democracy coupled with international cooperation and integration.

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  2. Pingback: The EU Referendum: A Disorders Forum | The Disorder Of Things

  3. Pingback: Burning issue – war, peace and the EU | Best of Brexit

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