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Three visionaries, two great institutions

The spirit that created the European Union is the same motivation that brought the world its biggest festival of the Arts, culture and fun, writes Martin Roche.

August will soon be with us. That means it’s Edinburgh Festival time.

Auld Reekie will be buzzing with countless thousands of visitors from every part of the globe. All there to wallow in the joy that comes from the performing and visual Arts. All the world is Edinburgh’s stage, played against the backdrop that is surely one of the world’s most beautiful cities.

Edinburgh itself is perhaps the biggest single show, preening a bit, maybe even showing off. Being Edinburgh, it will do so cooly, not to be thought brash or boastful. We all know the city is bursting with pride that world comes to it and that, almost by alchemy, the old place hosts the world’s biggest cultural jamboree. How did that happen? Well, it wasn’t alchemy.

Of all Scottish cities, Edinburgh is the one most associated with the Scottish Enlightenment, that period of, mainly, the 18th century that saw rational thought triumph and the serendipitous creativity of great minds feeding each other great ideas in the hugger mugger of Old Town closes and wynds and the ordered symmetry of the New Town and its elegant drawing rooms. No better place could be found to celebrate all he world’s liberal imagination.

“We look to Scotland for all our ideas on civilization,” wrote Voltaire.

End of civilisation

By the 1940s, the idea of civilisation had taken a terrible pounding. Much of Europe lay in ruins. Over 20 million people were dead. The institutions of liberal democracy had been crushed under the boot of fascism and militarism. Myths of one man’s agency over another led to the industrialised murder that was the Holocaust. Jews suffered the biggest single number of casualties of the theories of racial superiority, but hatred also killed Slavs, the disabled, the mentally sick, blacks, gays, communists, trade unionists and even social democrats. Ordinary Germans who challenged the brutalism of Hitler’s regime were taken to the guillotine.

The Nazis shut down colleges and art schools they disapproved of. They killed or banished artists, playwrights, composers, musicians, authors, thinkers, journalists, teachers. Fair law and democracy were replaced by state-sanctioned gangsterism. A dark cloud fell over Europe and liberal civilization stood in danger of extinction.

The Europe that emerged from the horrors of WW2 was broken economically, intellectually, politically and culturally. Its spirit, if not quite destroyed, was in urgent need of repair.

In the capitals of Europe, men and women of great vision dreamt of ways to heal the broken continent. They sought solutions that would break down barriers of narrow nationalism, prejudice and hatred.

They wanted to make that peace that had been so dearly won modelled to try to put an end to war. Peace was their aim, a peace secured through creating the conditions for freedom, democracy, prosperity and ever-closer ties between the peoples of Europe. Those visionaries – people like the French Resistance-hero Jean Monet, the Belgian, Paul Henri Spaak and another Frenchman, Robert Schuman, shared the entirely humanitarian vision so well expressed by our own Robert Burns. “That man to man the world o’er brothers be for a’ that.” Winston Churchill called for “a unites states of Europe.”


The vision of those pioneers was first to become an economic partnership between France and Germany, two of Europe’s most ancient foes. Then came six nations that created the European Economic Community (EEC), which the UK joined in 1973 (as did Ireland). In 1993 the EEC evolved into the European Union (EU). Today, there are 27 member states of the EU. It is the world’s richest single market for goods and services and founded on four freedoms. The freedom of goods, capital, services and people. Those freedoms are enshrined in EU law and every one of the 447 million citizens of the EU is entitled to the protection of EU law and the exercise of EU rights.

European Union law says that any citizen of Europe has the absolute legal right to move freely across the EU, to live, work and love in any EU state. The barriers that were once common across Western Europe have been knocked down. The peoples of the continent no longer live in fear of their EU neighbours. The French are no less French. The Germans no less German. The Poles no less Polish. Each nation remains proud, their national cultures still strong. But now they celebrate being part of a hugely successful arrangement that has at its heart friendship between nations.

As Monet, Spaak and Shuman were laying the foundations of a new economic, political and social Europe, an Austrian musical impresario called Rudolf Bing had a vision to cast off the grey clouds and fears of post-war Europe. Bing, who had escaped Nazi occupied Austria and made his way to the UK, envisaged a great celebration of European culture. Sir Henry Wood, the conductor now famous as the father of the Proms, suggested Edinburgh and the city’s Lord Provost, Sir John Falconer, saw the potential of the idea and gave it his backing. In 1947 the Edinburgh International Festival was born.

Artistic and creative freedom

The dream was to bring alive again artistic and creative freedom and invite the world to Edinburgh to – to the city of rational enlightenment – so that free men and women might celebrate the coming of peace and the hope of a better world. The Edinburgh Festival came into the world in the same spirit of reconciliation as that which saw the bonding of Europe and the eventual birth of the European Union.

Few could then have imagined that the Edinburgh Festival would grow to be the world’s single biggest celebration of the Arts, culture and fun. The original festival spawned the creation of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo. The Edinburgh Festival Fringe sees some 3,000 separate performances of music, theatre, dance and comedy. There are also in August Edinburgh Festivals of Art,  books and film. The London-based Centre for Economic and Business Research said in 2019 that the Edinburgh Festivals generate some £500 million in direct spending and indirect spending of another £560 million.

Both institutions, if vastly different in size and impact, have stood the test of time. Both have had difficult moments, none more so for the EU than the UK leaving, following the 2016 referendum.  Until the UK left the EU, the Edinburgh Festival itself and many of the companies that performed in Edinburgh benefitted from EU funding. Leaving the EU, the impact of Covid, rising fuel costs and raging inflation have all created problems for the Edinburgh Festivals.

But have no fear, the spirit of internationalism, of brotherhood and welcome that opened itself to a ravaged Europe is alive and well. Like the EU, it has tenacity and, like the EU, it survives because it brings people benefits they value. They both bring people closer. They both make the world a better place to be.

With Russia’s attack on Ukraine the peace of Europe is less secure than it was. But the war has strengthened the resolve of EU states to stay together. The hand of EU membership has been extended to a post-war Ukraine. Peace is the greatest single achievement of European integration. Without peace all other good human ambition is threatened, whether it be business, science, technology, education, the Arts, sport or simply the freedom to travel. If there is one single reason why the European Movement in Scotland tirelessly campaigns for Scotland to be again a full EU member it is peace.

Martin Roche is a member of the executive committee of the European Movement in Scotland.