Thursday, January 06, 2005

Lessons from History #1

The Hague Peace Conferences

In 1899, peace campaigners were understandably concerned at the imminent threat of wars between the Great Powers. The scramble for Africa epitomised the the rivalry between the countries - land of little obvious value was gobbled up to stop the "other lot" getting their mitts on it. Thus when the first convention was called by the Tsar of Russia and the Queen of the Netherlands, peace campaigners were excited at the opportunity of having so many countries sitting down and negotiating with one another. However, the first peace conference was not called for such obvious altruistic motives as obtaining a general world peace, but more due to the inability of Russia to keep up with the arms race between Germany and Great Britain.

A spirit of mutual distrust filled both peace conferences - one in 1899, the other in 1907. Despite this, however, some successes were achieved - the first convention banned the use of chemical weapons and instituted a general agreement to treat POWs humanely. Perhaps more significantly, it set up the Hague Tribunal - an international arbitration court - which in its first years had some notable successes. To get the ball rolling, the US and Mexico submitted a dispute to binding arbitration; Norway declared independence from Sweden in 1905 with a minimum of disruption under the auspices of the tribunal.

Yet the real hope of the peace campaigners - to get some sort of disarmament agreement - never materialised. Indeed, for all that the second conference had 46 participants (as opposed to 26 at the first), it was clear the mutual distrust between the major countries, with Germany in particular being reluctant to commit to any sort of agreement. That said, the conference did publish further resolutions regulating conflict in the case of belligerence between two signatories, and it was hoped a third conference could be held eight years later. We are still waiting.


I think that study of the Hague Peace Conferences would be highly instructive for the strongest opponents of the EU, and in particular the constitution. Countries may come together and agree to certain treaties - but they can never be forced to make changes that they are unwilling to do in the first place. It is ironic that the two greatest cheerleaders for centralisation in the EU (France and Belgium) are also the two countries with least compliance. However, when I hear concerns about, for example, the creation of a European foreign minister, I think people do not understand the realities of European politics. ANY powers ceded to the EU will only be done so with the full and express consent of the national governments - even with qualified majority voting. This is even more the case with a country like Britain, which is ultimately a key player in the EU. We won't suddenly start losing powers en masse to Brussels without the express consent of our Government. Now, you may be worried about the current government - but in that case, you need to find a change to our democratic system.