A hundred years of Europe

July 2016

Richard Fenning, CEO, Control Risks

A hundred years ago today in northern France, my Irish grandfather – an infantryman in the Royal Irish Rifles – emerged from his trench and advanced towards the German machine guns. This was the first day of what would become known as The Battle of the Somme, one of the worst conflicts of World War One. By the end of the day, 20,000 of his comrades and thousands on the German side would be dead. He was lucky. Having reached the German trenches unscathed, he was then wounded in the leg (ironically, by shrapnel from a British shell). He survived and fought on until the end of the war.

Twenty eight years later and his son, my father, climbed aboard an RAF Lancaster bomber and spent the rest of the war bombing German cities. By the time the war finished, 55,000 of his fellow airmen would be dead. Tragically, so would countless German civilians. Again, he was lucky. He survived the war and went on to live a long life.

Fast forward to 2014, and my own son moves to Germany to study at Humboldt University in Berlin as part of the Erasmus Programme. A year later, once graduated, he returns to Berlin to live and work. What distinguishes the experience of these three separate generations of my family is a changed version of why young men leave their home in Britain and head to the rest of Europe. For the first two – my grandfather and father – it was to fight against grim odds in brutal wars. For my son, it was to study, learn a new language, understand a different culture, make friends, start work and prosper. 

This transformation from battlefield to classroom, from enemy to neighbour has been made possible by a willingness among many of the nations of Europe to subjugate their differences and forge an alternative peaceful reality.

We have been told by multiple politicians and commentators during Britain’s bruising Brexit national pyscho-drama that the European Union has lost its relevance in the modern world. Maybe, in part, it has – it is certainly flawed and in need of reform – but it is worth pausing to consider that a hundred years is a mere blink of the eye in the wider sweep of history. And for much of that time the European Union has been indisputably the means through which this bold experiment in peaceful cooperation as an alternative to national rivalry has been made real.

As our political leaders – whoever they may turn out to be – rush to implement change, it is worth remembering the visceral lesson of what we have achieved as Europeans in a few short generations. The future may turn out to be better than the present – I hope so. But, for one family, the present is infinitely better than the past. And for that we can thank all the European nations – Britain included – for their determination to stop history repeating itself. I fear that this unfashionable lesson may be about to be unlearned.

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