Knowing what is behind us helps us to navigate safely forward
Opinion: The extraordinary achievement that is the European Union should not be taken for granted
Divided Europe: a section of the Berlin Wall. Photograph: Hulton/Getty Images
Europe has been in crisis for several years. Output has plummeted, living standards have fallen, unemployment has soared, inequality has risen, social cohesion has frayed and political disenchantment has spread.
There are signs that the worst may be over. For Ireland as for other European countries 2014 could prove to be a turning point: growth prospects have improved, unemployment has started to decline and public and private budgets are being brought back into balance.
So are we out of the woods? Whoever pretends to know that we are or, or who would claim that the crisis is far from over, should be viewed with suspicion. Predictions, as Mark Twain observed, are always difficult, especially those about the future.
It does not take experts to tell us that every crisis must end. People cannot endure endless strain and deprivation. So the real question is how the crisis ends or, more precisely, how it should end. For the future is not preordained. Human history is not governed by natural laws. What becomes the future is the outcome of present-day actions and decisions.
And these decisions and actions can go either way. A hundred years ago, in the run-up to the first World War, people were governed by folly rather than wisdom. Seventy-five years ago Nazi Germany launched an aggression that caused the second World War and unleashed an unprecedented killing machine in the form of the Holocaust.
Guns silent but loaded
So, in the first half of the last century Europe was the hotbed of two World Wars. During that era our continent never was at true peace. When the guns were silent they were still kept loaded.
In the second half of the 20th century, developments in parts of Europe took a very different course. The continent as a whole became the theatre of a Cold War pitching the communist east against the free west. But in the shadow of the east-west confrontation a peace community began to flourish.
Within the borders of what is now the European Union war has become inconceivable. It is not a conflict-free zone, for friction is inevitable among men. But within our European peace community we trust each other to resolve our differences peacefully through compromise and mutual respect. This extraordinary achievement should not be taken for granted. Peace is too precious to be left to complacency. It requires continuous nurturing.
Reminding ourselves of what has been achieved and of the need to renew it constantly is particularly apt in a year when we commemorate the outbreak of two World Wars. In Ireland the ongoing decade of remembrance, as well as the experience of the Troubles further raise the awareness of the precious nature of peace and reconciliation.
Ireland formally joined the European peace community in 1973. At the time it was a community confined to western Europe. Our European neighbours who suffered the misfortune to be on the communist side of divided Europe (and Germany) had to wait until the division came to an end. This happened some 25 years ago when the Berlin Wall fell in November 1989.
Three numbers – 100, 75, 25 – mark historic watersheds that will be commemorated throughout Europe this year. We should use these watersheds just as a car driver uses a rear-view mirror: to remember that knowing what is behind helps to chart a safe way forward.
What has been left behind is a continent at war and a European neighbourhood separated by the Iron Curtain. Eventually the present crisis will also be left behind. But the contrast between the aftermath of the first World War and the second World War offers a stark reminder that how a crisis ends can be major determinant of the future. The period after the former was marred by mistrust and recriminations, whereas after the second World War western Europe came together under American tutelage.
Such a guardian is no longer available. And is no longer needed. Our European Union has become the guarantor of a Europe at peace. It may be the most awkward way of sharing peace, prosperity and democracy together – except for all the other ways that have been tried in European history.
We can and should debate whether Europe’s response to the present crisis has been the right one. No one, a political leader or an expert, has a monopoly on wisdom. But let us not lose sight of the historic achievement our European peace community represents. Not just in 2014 but at any time.
Eckhard Lübkemeier is the German ambassador to Ireland