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Rebuilding Europe's Peace - 15th June 2016 Report

Uniting For Peace – Conference June 2016
Report by Bernie Holland


With regard to the forthcoming referendum on the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union, it is regretful that the sharp controversy over whether we should leave or remain in the EU has been rendered into even sharper chiaroscuro by recent tragic events, the perpetrators of which have only one aim, that being to create division and disharmony within society. In this respect, it is  remarkable that the conference held at the Euston Hilton on 15th June presented a cross section of humanity who, despite the polarity of views passionately held, saw it fit to conduct the entire proceedings in a spirit of friendship and magnanimity. Such creditable values are in stark contrast with the attitudes of those who primarily seek to present others as the villain of the peace. Thankfully this conference allowed free expression of the views of all concerned here, even if it were to emerge that, of the nine speakers sitting on the panel, six  were advocating a vote to ‘remain’ whilst only three were in favour of the UK extricating itself from the perceived shackles of the European Union.

As one of the speakers, Patricia McKenna, a Dubliner and environmental and civil liberties activist informed me later, in the Republic of Ireland it would have been statutory for the panel to be formed 50% for and 50% against in order to avoid any charge of imbalance. Nevertheless, as I hope will become apparent to you on reading this, in this unique and unprecedented scenario, any perceived ‘bias’ would be purely academic bearing in mind that, the three speakers urging us to leave were able to present very persuasive and coherent arguments for their cause. Another  mitigating factor here can be presented in respect of the fact that Rita Payne (Chair) actually allowed the three ‘leavers’ more than sufficient time to present their case.

Before introducing the speakers, Rita prefaced this conference by highlighting the heated controversy that continues to rumble on as we approach the day of reckoning on 23rd June. From recently televised ‘referendum debates’ it appears that there are five main areas of interest here. (1) “Sovereignty”  (2) “The Future of the National Health Service” (3) Immigration (4)  Security and (5) Economics. Those who have been observing developments in the media will, by now, realise that the phrase “we have consulted the experts”, which has mainly been one of the tools of the ‘remain’ campaign, has now assumed the cloak of redundancy, particularly when any such expertise is seen in the light of vested-interest. In the case of the ‘leave’ campaign it has often been more a case of  the belittlement of provincial isolationism. The Middle Way teaches us that neither of these doctrines leads to salvation – rather, that we must shun such orthodoxy if we are to protect all life and the environment that supports it. Such is the road to peace.

Our first speaker, James Brazier is a Foreign Policy Specialist who presented his argument in favour of remaining in the EU. James commitment to peace is incontestable as he assisted our Chairman, Vijay Mehta on his latest work “Peace Beyond Borders – How the EU brought peace to Europe and how exporting it would end conflicts around the world”. James viewed the ‘Brexit’ campaign as being peppered with complacency in the face of seemingly intractable situations on the African continent, highlighting the fact that, whilst we enjoy the apparent comforts of democracy, no less than twenty one countries are still living under dictatorships. James shares Vijay Mehta’s view that the wholesale export of peace making processes and initiatives would lead towards conflict resolution and that such creditable intent would be best served as a member of the union.

Our second speaker, Richard Howitt  is a Member of the European Parliament, like the previous speaker, who presented his argument in favour of remaining in the EU. Richard is convinced that the European Union is the guardian of peace throughout Europe and claimed that Europe was integral to the Irish Peace Process  - a claim that was to be contested later in the evening. He continued by emphasising the importance of the European Court and that the UK should be more influential in this respect. Whilst it was sensible of him to suggest that International Development Programmes can go some way towards curbing the proliferation of breeding grounds for conflict, his criticism of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage cannot be regarded as constructive, particularly if it were necessary to engage in  any sort of dialogue with them in the future, as may well be the case bearing in mind the general sense of despair and hopelessness  which has been a factor in their rise to prominence. This indicates a binary form of thought which brings hagiography upon those perceived to be ‘right’ and ‘just’ as opposed to a virulent condemnation of those at whose door all the ills of this world be laid – and, although not central to this discussion, it can be added that the very same mistake is being made regarding the attitude of NATO towards Russia.

Our third speaker, Jean Lambert  is a Member of the European Parliament, and a member of the Green Party. Advocating that we remain in the EU, Jean presentation covered issues such as the problems of dictatorships and the challenges of democracy, the reconsideration of strategies for security in the 21st century, effectively dealing with climate change, coping with the movement of people, problems of population growth and combating violent extremism. One interesting point which covers many areas of concern, was her views regarding the  propriety of the use of drones, which have become ever more widespread in their use in military situations.

Our fourth speaker, Patricia McKenna, is an environment and civil liberties activist who had travelled from Dublin to present her case to leave the European Union. Patricia gave a very spirited  presentation which brought to our attention the transience of European borderlines and how this is contributing to the notion of a ‘Fortress Europe’. The ‘Little Englander’ metaphor was turned on its face here becoming the ‘Little European’ with the potentiality of the armament of member states – manna from heaven for the Military Industrial Complex, the key player of which, namely the USA, providing the manufactory, serving the interests of the international arms trade who are currently assessing the relative military capability of the member states. Her comments about the counter-productive effects caused by those who continue to condemn others, shone as a spark of wisdom in an atmosphere that had the potentiality to be clouded by the mist of purely economic concerns – the threats of job-losses and industrial decline and the indecent obsession with all things GDP. You can have all the economic success possible, but of what use is this if people continue to consign others to the fire and brimstone – and this is exactly the case regarding the demonization of those who differentiate themselves from the ‘remain’ camp.  Patricia also challenged Richard Howitt’s earlier assumption that the EU had brought peace to Northern Ireland, explaining that it would be more accurate to present the USA as the contributing factor here. Yet another expert view blown out of the water ! Sensing her eight-minute time slot was about to expire, Patricia made sure that everyone was aware that this tiresome policy of advocacy of the possession of nuclear weapons was engraved in EU defence policy.

Our fifth speaker, Louise Rowntree, a member of Rowntree & Associates Consultancy, described herself as a media expert in cross border lobbying. During her appeal to ‘remain’, she  gave an account of how she had been doing real-time research  as to why people would wish to leave  the EU. Her assertion that ‘most people take peace for granted’ could be perceived as an unhelpful generalisation at a time when every railway station broadcasts tannoy messages about passenger security in the face of invisible threats from those afflicted with serious mental disorders. Ideologically, she announced her opposition to the views of the previous speaker and dismissed the concern over ‘sovereignty’ as irrelevant in light of the existence of Empire and Commonwealth. The impression here was that we should both remain in the EU and, at the same time, be better equipped to resurrect the prefix ‘Great’ in Britain. Like our Prime Minister, she is decidedly not a quitter.

Our sixth speaker, Mark Stephens, an experienced writer and broadcaster, offered us further guidance as to why we should liberate ourselves from the shackles of the EU, stating that the legislation upon which the union was founded has not changed with the times. Explaining that, for many decades now,  we have been at the behest of economic monoliths, he highlighted the abominable treatment of Greece which did not meet the requirements of a standardised currency which was foisted upon its people with disastrous consequences. Other signal failures of the EU included the scandal surrounding fishing quotas, the wasteful subsidy to uneconomic French farmers and the inordinate amounts that the French have creamed off so-called common agricultural policies. Intending no disrespect, Mark pointed out that one of the earlier speakers may be too young to appreciate that it was the Council of Europe, and not the EU, which had been the initial peacebuilders in post-war Europe.

Our seventh speaker, Fawzi Ibrahim, Ibrahim, representing Trade Unionists Against the EU, in presenting his case to leave the union, drew from his involvement in  an international fact-finding delegation to Greece, where he was beseeched by Greek Trade Unionists for the UK to help Greece by leaving the EU. He was unequivocal in begging the question, “What is the EU good for ?”  Citing unemployment figures in excess of 22,000 and the merciless programmes of austerity imposed, along with cuts of 20% in wages and 40% in pensions he provided a powerful argument, particularly in light of the fraud and corruption which continues in a climate of impunity. Echoing  Mark Stephens’s comments, Fawzi  reiterated the litany of waste regarding agricultural policy and shed further light on the residual economic policy extolling the virtues of the unregulated free market and the incipient programme of ‘freedom of movement of labour’, the inevitable corollary of which would be the enforcement of the movement of labour. His impassioned plea for a governmental shift towards the interests of local communities reminded me of the model model expounded by Dr Schumacher – economics as if the ordinary person mattered. Fawzi brought a wry smile to many faces as how he explained that, had the European Union been in existence in 1835, it would have shown no compunction in implementing the policies of the notorious Factories Act which to quote history “in every part of the manufacturing districts in Yorkshire considerable excitement prevailed in consequence of mills having been thrown out of employment by the operation of the Factory-law.”  In respect of the aspirations of the common man, Fawzi offered a compelling argument with quiet humour.

Our eighth speaker, Rev. Brian Cooper, UfP Coordinator Churches and Interfaith Secretary, pleaded powerfully to remain to avoid a constitutional crisis with Scotland and maintain the unity of UK. Declaring immigration creates job, he said, "EU should compensate communities under pressure from high levels of rapid immigration." The European unity ideal originated in Christian Democracies post-1945 project of European moral and economic renewal after the degradation of Fascism, but the EU idealism rooted in Christian heritage and Enlightenment humanism had dimmed by 1980's. Jacques Delors then stated, "Europe need a soul: economics alone was inadequate." UK should Remain to help create a new Euro idealism to tackle EU's current unprecedented crisis from far right populism to Middle East mass migration.

Our ninth and final speaker was Vijay Mehta, Chair of Uniting for Peace, and an acclaimed author  of  literature advocating the resolution of conflict. Vijay harbours a profound belief that “together we can make a difference” and his able organisation of peace promoting assemblies, over the years, is based on this fundamental premise. Speaking for the ‘remain’ campaign, Vijay reminded us that, up to 1945, Europe had, for centuries, remained a war-torn zone, further, that since 1945 it has not been involved in any major conflict. The nub of Vijay’s argument, which is entirely consistent with the aphorism “together we can make a difference”, is that it would be a grave mistake for the UK to adopt an isolationist position. He admitted that, despite its shortcomings, the European Union has been a success and that by leaving the union, both sides would  be at a disadvantage, and that we need to cultivate European values. With respect to my earlier comments regarding a balanced debate, as a friend and colleague, it would be unfair of me to disregard the fact that, in line with his deepest convictions as a man of peace, Vijay arranged this conference primarily as a platform for the position adopted by Uniting for Peace, this being that the United Kingdom votes to remain in the European Union on 23rd June.

There followed a question and answer session, which allowed participants to air their concerns, ably moderated by Rita Payne who had to summon greater skill when a question would sometimes be prefaced by a policy statement. However, despite the shedding of greater light upon a variety of issues, there remained a number of people who had yet to arrive at a decision.