'Take up our quarrel with the foe', intones John McCrae’s famous In Flanders Fields. 'To you from failing hands we throw, the torch'. For the millions of us marking Remembrance Sunday today, that quarrel is a solemn reminder of past sacrifice. It refers, somewhat euphemistically, to one of the bloodiest, most tragic conflicts in history.
For some activists in and around the European Union, however, a more contemporary quarrel comes to mind. Obsessed with what they perceive as the dark foreboding forces of Brexit, they can’t help raising aloft the torch of EU supranationalism. The most egregious example being a piece in The Independent with the outrageous clickbait headline 'If you voted Leave don't bother wearing a poppy'.
Enter Brussels’ most belligerent advocate, Guy Verhosofadt. He has marked Armistice Day by tweeting about how 'we built a Union of peace', capital U, from the ashes of war – not forgetting to drape his post with an EU flag emoji, in case the reference wasn’t obvious. 'Once we fought now we talk' his profile adds, overlaid onto a photo of politicians in the European Parliament, as if we would be incapable of communicating and cooperating with each other without MEPs.
If the EU equals peace then the implied corollary is clear: Brexit means more war. There’s actually an argument to be made that it is the case, albeit an abstract one. David Cameron went there, in what was for me a real nadir for the Remain campaign, when he invoked “the serried rows of white headstones” in a speech on EU security. The Nobel Committee also infamously promoted the notion that the EU can take credit for European peace. But given the divisiveness of the ongoing Brexit debates, it takes a special gall for a former Belgian Prime Minister to press that case on the day we commemorate the deaths of over 700,000 British soldiers.
Britain and its Commonwealth didn’t enter that war on the back of an EU clause or a vote in Brussels. We did so honouring the Treaty of London – an agreement with Belgium going back to 1867, ninety years before the Treaty of Rome. We also did so, by the way, despite Imperial Germany being our biggest trading partner. And we did so, I take no pleasure in pointing out, in defence of lands that neutral unprepared Belgian forces were not able to defend themselves, and while providing sanctuary in our own lands for 200,000 Belgians.
The causes of that war were complicated and no-one is asking for gratitude. We simply reflect on its cost, and the blood that has been shed since. Britain suffered over 300,000 casualties in the battles of Ypres alone - many, for the first time, caused by chlorine. The poppies on our lapels and in our wreaths are there because of McCrae’s poem, reflecting on how these delicate yet resilient flowers grew amid the barren, war-scarred fields. Verhofstadt knows this better than most – he himself was grown in Flanders.
— Chris Kendall 🇪🇺 (@ottocrat) October 28, 2017
If the emergence of white poppies wasn’t already politicising this occasion enough, this year one self-described ‘eurocrat’ has even gone so far as to spend hours crocheting EU-coloured poppies, as a response to the 'jingoistic tone' and 'poppy fascism' of our traditional symbol. “I served against fascism, I knew fascism…. wearing poppies is no fascism”, as a veteran might say.
Unfortunately this is not limited to political actors. I know of at least one service last year in which the priest spent most of the sermon lecturing against Brexit. While that’s unlikely to be an anomaly, can you imagine there being a single sermon this morning in which it was crassly argued that Armistice Day was a reminder of the perils of European political imperialism? I can see only one side exploiting remembrance for this relatively trivial political debate, and thankfully it’s a minority.
If there is any appropriate lesson to reflect on today it is that freedom isn’t free, that our values have to be fought for. How we go about that can be debated later – but for me, relative to the horrors of total war and the defence of civilisation, Brexit is little more than a coalition disagreement of command and control. So is it too much to ask that we have a truce in the Brexit air war, for one day? No tweeted caveats or political agendas - just remembrance. And yes, poppies in the colour of the blood that earned our peace.