Peace in Europe: Has Brexit Heightened the Risk of Conflict?

Comment: Written by Bridgette Lane.

On the 23rd June 2016 the UK voted to leave the European Union. The ‘Leave’ vote won with a slim majority of 51.9 per cent; and while there were many elements to the Brexit debate, one that was not widely considered was how peace has existed between EU member states since the end of World War Two. The ideals of co-operation, free trade, and freedom of movement have developed Europe into a continent that is largely at peace with itself. Therefore, by voting to leave the EU, has the UK challenged the ideal of a peaceful Europe?  

A glance at the EU’s own explanation of it’s history shows that it believes that the desire for peace after WWII was one of its founding principles. Academic debate exists around how and why the forefather to the EU, the European Coal and Steel Community, was created, however, it is clear that the co-operation it built between Germany and France’s coal and steel industries paved the way for a peaceful Europe.

As the areas of cooperation grew the ECSC became the European Economic Community in 1957, and then the EU in 1993. The EEC and the EU developed the idea that if states shared trade, people, and cultures so that they would be less likely to engage in conflict with each other, and it has clearly worked. Therefore, by voting for Brexit the British people have unwittingly challenged the current diplomatic state of affairs, and put themselves in a more unstable position.

It is a significant leap to suggest that Brexit could lead to European states fighting with each other again, however, when discussing peace, we must look beyond inter-state warfare. The reality of modern day conflict involves mainly intra-state conflicts, as can be seen in brutal six-year conflict in Syria and the ongoing ethnic struggles in Burma/Myanmar.

These conflicts tend to be identity based, with opposing groups feeling threatened by the existence of the other, and therefore taking up arms to protect their sense of who they are. Identity politics are central to these conflicts, and it is something we must be concerned about as politics globally has become more centred around the issue of identity. Most recently, the Presidential campaign ran by Donald Trump played on ideas of American identity, often singling out ethnic or religious groups who he argued did not fit the archetype of an American person.

The Brexit debate also centred around questions of identity, challenging what it meant to be British and European, which has in turn led to the UK becoming a divided nation. Questions have arisen over whether the UK is becoming a less tolerant nation, especially in light of the Conservative Government’s proposed policy to list all foreign workers and the reports of increased racist attacks.

The xenophobia that exists in British society was made evident in the Brexit referendum, and it is something that we must make sure does not become the dominant feature of a post-Brexit UK. This is something that British people should be concerned about, because intolerance usually leads to civil conflict or one-sided violence against minority groups.

The idea of conflict erupting in the UK may be a far-fetched idea to many British people, as many will not have seen or been directly effected by conflict. However, this should not be the case, considering that peace in Northern Ireland was only established less than twenty years ago. This is the region of the UK that is most threatened by the Brexit vote, as issues such as a hard border and EU funding have the potential to make the region more unstable.

Most importantly, identity is still a difficult issue in the region and any heightening of these tensions could cause significant problems in the region. With the two major political parties in Northern Ireland, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, divided over Brexit, this has the potential to create an impasse in the peace process.

Brexit has challenged the peaceful Europe that we were accustomed too. Although the threat of inter-state conflict may be minimal in the modern age, the risk of intra-state conflicts erupting is becoming a more distinct possibility with the rise in identity based politics.

Realistically, the region most vulnerable to the effects of Brexit is Northern Ireland. When Article 50 is evoked by the British Government there must be real effort to ensure that the peace process is not jeopardised for an ideology that the majority of the Northern Ireland electorate did not support. Ensuring that individuals and communities are not living with conflict is more important than debates around whether sovereignty lies with a European Parliament or a British Parliament.

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