‘A day will come when war will seem as absurd and impossible between Paris and London, between St. Petersburg and Berlin, between Vienna and Turin, as it would be impossible and would seem absurd today between Rouen and Amiens, between Boston and Philadelphia. A day will come when you France, you Russia, you Italy, you England, you Germany, you all, nations of the continent, without losing your distinct qualities and your glorious individuality, will be merged closely within a superior unit and you will form the European brotherhood […] A day will come when the only fields of battle will be markets opening up to trade and minds opening up to ideas. A day will come when the bullets and the bombs will be replaced by votes, by the universal suffrage of the peoples […] A day will come when we shall see those two immense groups, the United States of America and the United States of Europe […]’ (Victor Hugo at the International Peace Congress in Paris, 1849).
Although the European Union (EU) or, more precisely, the European Economic Community (EEC) was only created in 1957 with the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the ideal of European unification was not new. More than a hundred years before, Victor Hugo gave this famous speech to the International Peace Congress in Paris. Others before him, such as Napoleon Bonaparte, Giuseppe Mazzini or Wojciech Jastrzebowski had also expressed such feelings. However, this ideal was never shared unanimously, and ever since the creation of the European Union many criticisms and difficulties have challenged the progress of the European ideal. With Euroscepticism at record highs in Europe, the European project of unification is more than ever in danger. One wonders how many people have all but forgotten why the EU was set up in the first place.
It was only after the devastating impact of two world wars during the twentieth century that the ideal of European unification finally materialised. In 1952, Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet launched the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC). This project sought to pool the natural (and vital war) resources of six countries – France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg – in order to deter them from competing against each other, and so created a common market for coal and steel. This procedure aimed to ensure that two of Europe’s fiercest rivals – France and Germany – would never go to war against each other again. The success of the ECSC soon led politicians to expand its scope by signing the Treaty of Rome to create the EEC. This new international organisation was to build on the ECSC by creating a stronger, and eventually larger and deeper, trade bloc, which would allow national economies to rebuild themselves after the Second World War by taking advantage of market liberalisation to maximise trade. The EEC was therefore key to guaranteeing peace across Europe whilst providing food to its population in times of desperation.
Since then, the EEC developed to become the European Community (EC), and eventually the EU with the signing of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. Along the way the organisation also expanded its scope of influence by covering socio-cultural and political aspects of everyday life as well as economics. The attribution of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the EU clearly illustrated the organisation’s success. Ironically, this success has also meant that war is now so unlikely that many have taken European peace for granted and turned their back on the EU. Whilst it may be true that the EU in its current form does have flaws and needs improving, one should not forget that less than a hundred years ago Europe was just one giant battlefield.