During this EU referendum campaign I’ve had emails on all sorts of the issues being discussed. But apart from the ones talking about the economic, jobs and environmental issues at stake, the one that particularly struck me was one from a man called Geoffrey Smart who urged me to remind people of the role the EU had played as a force for stability in Europe.
He reminded me ‘over 20 million people were killed in the First World War. In the Second World War over 60 million died. Both wars began in Europe’ and that the EU had been founded after the last world war with specific aim of cooperation to avoid the catastrophes of the past. He told me ‘this vote is not just about the next few years but for several generations… whether we want to operate as though the world is one in which other countries are seen merely as rivals to be taken economically and cowed militarily. Or a much more grown-up world in which we need to build productive partnerships. The European Union is very much in the second camp’.
I am attaching part of the reply I sent to him. I hope people will read it carefully and think about the security and other consequences if we do not continue on a path of cooperation in Europe and remain in the EU.
I believe as you do that the case to be made for remaining in the EU is not simply about economics, jobs, rights or the environment. The strategic and international challenges of the 21st century we face and the history accompanying them demand a hearing as well. Both those challenges and our history show how dangerous it is to disconnect ourselves from a European association at a time when reactions to globalisation are bringing backlashes of fear and extreme isolationism.
Too few people think about the 'what ifs' of the EUs contribution to European stability since the early 1990s and what might have happened if the EU and the UK hadn’t played a big part in it. What if instead of the careful support by the EU of post-Soviet era governments in central and Eastern Europe and the Baltics towards the liberal democracy, rights and freedoms that those of us in Western Europe had taken for granted (then leading to the peaceful enlargement of the EU) those countries had disintegrated into warring, xenophobic States? We saw what could happen, with the disintegration of Yugoslavia. Its people fought each other and we had thousands of men, women and children murdered in the atrocious genocide in the Balkans. It was a horrible echo of what the Nazis did in Europe in the Second World War.
The people who say we should leave completely ignore the potential for such scenarios. But if that disintegration had happened we would now not just be concerned about migrants from Syria or elsewhere in the Middle East but about displaced refugees, potentially five or tenfold their numbers , from the heart of Europe. It could still happen if the EU went into meltdown. As someone who has chaired a Parliamentary group linking with Estonia and MPs there for nearly ten years, I feel this very strongly.
Estonia is a small country that regained its independence in 1991 from the Soviet Union. It is a country whose history includes occupation both by the Nazis and Stalin’s Communism. It is now a stable country has become stable and its troops fought side by side our troops in Afghanistan. Estonia and many of the other countries in the former Soviet areas value Britain as an ally and want us to remain in the EU as well as NATO for our common security.
In just over a week we will be commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Battle of the Somme. My great-uncle, after whom my father was named, died on the first day of that battle, aged 19. The story handed down in our family is that when the telegram arrived telling my great grandmother that her youngest son had been killed, she sat on the stairs in the hallway for over 24 hours and would not be moved.
I have visited his grave - in a beautiful immaculately kept small cemetery near the battlefield. I was the first person in our family to have been able to do so, and felt a sense of the loss, waste and grief of that generation. The EU and the part Britain has played in it has been a major factor in preventing a repeat of that and of the two world wars that devastated all our countries in Europe.
To do justice to the dead, not just for their sake but for the lessons their sacrifices have to teach us, matters. It makes us query and challenge the ' stop the world - we want to get off' arguments of the Leave campaign. We can’t live behind closed barriers and minds. Isolation for Britain from Europe – will threaten us, not just economically but also our security and our values.
We saw last week where political extremism and terrorism could lead on a quiet Thursday afternoon in a high street in Yorkshire. It reminds us of the sort of things which started to happen in 1930s Europe.
We have to take account of that this Thursday, with the decision to Remain in or Leave the EU. If not we may find the words of an old saying coming back to haunt us – that those who fail to learn from the past are condemned to repeat it.
Gordon Marsden MP