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How EU and modern Asia arose from ashes of WWI

This week, as the centenary of opening hostilities in the First World War was commemorated, closer formal trade ties between the European Union and New Zealand were announced.  Both these events can tell us much about the future of EU/NZ relations.

The guns of August 1914 marked a cataclysmic end to European peace, but the Great War can also be seen as the beginning of positive national projects around the world.

Questions about whether the 21st century might feature a similar war have really been done to death. Any war is possible, but is one probable? Although some analyses are drawing a disturbing parallel between today and 100 years ago, the world has changed in important ways.

Those changes are the most important part of the terrible events last century. Whatever projects and reality the war upended, it equally set alternatives in motion that we are still dealing with today.

European Union Delegation to New Zealand charge de affairs Michalis Rokas says the First World War centenary is a chance for Europe to remember the fighting and think about the importance of the union.

“We’re thinking about the war not just as a moment of reflection, but as the moment when the European Union was first conceived. In a very real sense, the union would not exist today without the war. It is extremely significant for us,” he says.

Mr Rokas describes how the bitter enemies in both wars – Germany and France – managed to forge the foundation of the European Union by “showing the audacity to reconcile” and set the direction for the way forward.

“I am Greek,” says Mr Rokas. “Since the end of the two world wars, Greece has not seen an invasion or been threatened. This was unprecedented in millennia of our history; we’re talking about one of the oldest states in the world. The centenary reminds us of the benefits of reconciliation.”

A centenary is like any anniversary: it has only an artificial meaning for those most concerned. There is no fundamental reason why 1914 should hold any more significant implications for 2014 than, say, 1962, 1814 or 1999.

In hindsight the build up to the First World War was like a runaway train, but the markets didn’t spot it rumbling down the tracks until it was too late. Today, the fighting in the Middle East, skirmishing in Ukraine and posturing in the South and East China Seas all seem to mimic the tensions of the early 20th century.

But the way that war reshaped the world gave New Zealand the access to international markets it enjoys today. Belligerent tensions aside, the interdependence of the world forces nations together as well as apart.

The Partnership Agreement on Relations and Cooperation (PARC) that New Zealand and the EU concluded this week is a political agreement that could lay the groundwork for a future free trade deal.

From New Zealand’s perspective, political frameworks are not so necessary for dealing with other countries, but for a supranational organisation like the EU it is easier to operate with this in place as it commits its member countries to cooperating across a range of different areas.

And despite our deep ties to Europe, in recent decades New Zealand has predominantly been focused on its Asian neighbours for trade. Had the Great War not occurred, New Zealand might still be beholden to Europe for everything to do with trade.

The fighting opened Asia up to the world as much as it opened up Europe. University of Auckland professor Nicholas Tarling says the war had an enormous impact on the relationship between Asia and Europe.

The post-war weakness of the British and German empires had an adverse impact on their Asian colonies.

“Europe was in no position to come to Asia’s support – especially China’s – and Japan took advantage of this by dominating its neighbours," says Mr Tarling. "This would have profound consequences later in the century.”

But most importantly for New Zealand’s future trade, after WWI the concept of the nation state spread towards Asia.

“Asian nations thought self-determination was on its way after WWI. If Europeans could treat each other as nation states, then why couldn’t Asia?” he says.

“Asians thought the war would bring at least partial emancipation. In some cases, notably in British colonies, more freedom was promised and granted."

Thus the modern Asian nations rose out of the ashes of the war, just as the European Union did.

“Hopefully this year’s centenary commemorations around the world sends the message to other parties involved in conflict,” says Mr Rokas.

“If Germany, France and Britain could reconcile, then why can’t Israel and the Palestinians or Japan and China do the same?”

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