Twenty years ago, the governments of the United Kingdom and of Ireland and eight Northern Ireland political parties entered into the Good Friday Agreement, which ended the decades of political violence that came to be known as “The Troubles.”

The people of Northern Ireland supported the effort to achieve agreement, and afterward they voted overwhelmingly to ratify it. Their political leaders, in dangerous and difficult circumstances, after lifetimes devoted to conflict, summoned extraordinary courage and vision, often at great risk to themselves, their families, their political careers.

One of the benefits of the agreement was the opening of the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. For the past 20 years thousands of people and large quantities of goods and services have crossed the border each day, generating economic growth and jobs on both sides. And the stereotyping, demonization and hostility that hampered both societies for decades have been dramatically reduced.

The horrific carnage of the three major land wars that ravaged Europe in the 75 years before 1945 is fast fading into ancient history. The relative peace that has reigned since is not by chance – it is the product of institutions and alliances painstakingly created in the aftermath of the great wars. These institutions, and in particular the bonds of friendship between the United States and Europe, remain as vital to global safety and stability today as they were a half-century ago.

After World War II, the Western democracies, led by the United States, helped Germany, Italy and Japan to rebuild and become durable democracies. They created international institutions whose goals were peace, stability and prosperity: the United Nations, NATO, the World Bank and the European Union. They sought to prevent a repeat of the past by promoting increased trade and collective security.

The European Union’s critics point to its deficiencies, which are real and serious, and must be addressed. But they are outweighed by the expansion of individual freedom, stability, trade and prosperity that Europeans have enjoyed. It is in the interest of the EU member states to confront and correct the union’s shortcomings, not to end it.

An immediate need in ensuring the continuance of the union is an agreed Brexit. A U.K. departure from the EU without agreed terms is in no one’s interest, especially with respect to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The EU and the U.K. government have publicly and repeatedly promised that there will not be a return to a hard border. That promise must be kept.

Would the renewal of a hard border lead to a renewal of violence? No one can predict with certainty what will happen. But in Northern Ireland, as in every society, there are some who are ready and willing to use violence to achieve their objectives. They may be few in number, but with modern technology even a few can cause great harm, as we’ve just seen here, in our own country. It makes no sense to do anything that could increase the likelihood of violence. That is especially true in a society that has a relatively recent history of such violence.

Brexit will have a negative impact on the U.K., on Ireland, and on the other European nations.  A weakened and divided Europe would mean the loss of a valuable democratic ally for the United States, which, as the dominant world power, inevitably will be affected by the intense challenges of this century. Despite undeniable progress, old social and economic problems have persisted and new ones have arisen: a continuing increase in population, much of it in countries plagued by corruption and poor governance, which has led to immigration crises in every part of the world; rapid and disorienting technological changes that have upended long-established patterns of work and daily life, and left millions of people feeling left out because they lack the skills needed for success in the 21st century; a sharp rise in income inequality, which has concentrated wealth in a very small number of people at the top while incomes stagnate or decline for those in the middle class, and climate change, which increases and intensifies droughts and storms, increasing desert lands and decreasing farmlands.

Our ties with Europe predate the establishment of our country. We gained our independence from England by revolution, but we retained England’s language, the spirit of its laws and many of its customs. Although our early relations were hostile, over time the two countries formed what remains a special relationship. We also have a unique relationship with Ireland, the heritage of more than 30 million Americans.

Indeed, we share deep bonds of blood with many nations in Europe. As America grew to settle a vast continent, we welcomed millions of immigrants from England, Ireland, Germany, Holland, France, Italy, Greece, Poland, Scandinavia and many more.

While we compete in many ways, we should not think of Europeans primarily as adversaries. They also are our partners and our allies. Although they do not always agree with us, or even among themselves, for the most part they admire our country and share our values and interests. It is in everyone’s interest that we do all we can – politically, economically, militarily and otherwise – to help the people of Europe remain democratic, united, free and prosperous.

The U.K. will be harmed by Brexit. The EU will also be harmed; it will be a smaller, weaker entity. In the next few months there may yet be an opportunity for agreement on a U.K. exit that is less damaging than other alternatives.

It is in the EU’s interest to maintain ties with the U.K., the second largest economy and the foremost military power in Europe. Despite their understandable anger and frustration, European leaders should focus on their self-interest and extend themselves in their dealings with the U.K.

The EU has special arrangements with several countries. If there is good faith and innovation on both sides, it may be possible for them to agree on a U.K. special arrangement. The odds against this happening are very high, as it would require very difficult compromises by political leaders in the U.K. and the EU.

The ordeal has been so long, the two sides are so entrenched and resistant to compromise, the effects on the economy and the political psyche of the U.K. have been so damaging, that a bad result may be inevitable. But I continue to hope, to the contrary, that if the leaders will lead, the people ultimately will follow, and a disaster may yet be avoided.

I began with a reference to Northern Ireland in 1998 and close with another. One week before the Agreement was reached a widely publicized opinion poll reported that 83 percent of the people of Northern Ireland believed that no agreement was possible, only 7 percent believed it was, and 10 percent did not express a view. And yet, the courageous leaders of Northern Ireland did agree, to their eternal credit. Can the current leaders of the U.K. and the EU summon the same courage and vision? We must hope and pray they will.


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