Europe, a century after the Great War

Friday 30 November 2018

On November 11, 2018, which marked the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War, commemorative events were organised in many countries around the world. While Brexit and the European elections are on the horizon, many European heads of state marked the occasion with speeches or simply with their presence: for instance, a German leader - President Frank-Walter Steinmeier - took part in the commemorations held in London for the very first time[1].


November 11 is about the celebration of the Armistice signed a century ago between the Allies and Germany in the now famous clearing of Rethondes, in Compiegne, France. We are celebrating the end of a war that, through the system of alliances, has torn Europe apart on an unprecedented scale, a first "total" and "world" war. But the Armistice that is celebrated in France, in the United Kingdom or in Belgium as a joyful event, does not bring the same happy memories for some other nations, Germany first of all. And sometimes, within the same country, disparities also exist, as it is, for instance, the case in Belgium where the war gave a new boost to Flemish nationalism[2], and in Italy where the independent region of Trentino-Alto Adige used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire[3]. Considering this, one may wonder whether it is truly appropriate to take advantage of this important event to call for a European rally. This is a conviction for certain people such as French President Emmanuel Macron who, in his commemoration speech to more than 70 heads of state and government, declared with regard to the  instances that were created following this long period of conflict: "This is called, on our continent, a friendship forged between Germany and France and a commitment to build a foundation of common ambitions. This is called the European Union, a union voluntarily agreed upon, unprecedented in history, and freeing us from our civil wars.[4] But does this celebration really fit into a European feeling? The debate remains open as the European Commission itself took the decision in 2014, in fear of offending any national sensibilities, to not organise any commemoration event for the first century of the war[5].


But despite these disparities between Member States, it remains interesting to analyse this event in the European context of 2018. The European Union was indeed built on a feeling of unity between nations that were fighting each other only a few years before. But what about this European feeling today? The elephant in the room is, of course, Brexit. For the first time since the creation of the European Economic Community in 1957, which the United Kingdom joined in 1973, a Member State is about to leave the European Union. Should we see it as a disallowance of the founding principles of a Union born from a continent ravaged by two successive wars, a comeback to purely national concerns? Even beyond Brexit, euroscepticism, this feeling of opposition to European integration, seems more and more present in the political landscape, even though the latest 2018 Eurobarometer revealed that the trust in the Union and optimism about the future were also growing[6]. This celebration in the run-up to the 2019 European elections was therefore, for some, another occasion to speak out against a rise of nationalism both internationally and within the EU itself[7].


While it is true that this Centenary of the Armistice is celebrated differently within the Union, this disparity only illustrates the differences between the various national histories and characters. For many, should they be political figures or simple citizens, the event remains however an opportunity to call for a gathering and the strengthening of our European identity, calling for a solidarity that has allowed former belligerents to come together and offer their citizens a Europe in peace.








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