Belgium’s few remaining World War II veterans are worried their old indispensable ally Britain will turn its back on Europe and undercut the ideals they fought for in the 1940s.
These resistance fighters used Britain as a rear base to battle the Nazi occupation of Belgium, now the post-war heart of the European project for peace and prosperity. But they fear Britain could become the first country to leave the European Union and trigger its unravelling, if British voters choose that path in Thursday’s in-out referendum.
For Jean Martial, who left his home in Brussels in 1942 aged 18 to join the resistance in London, the peace that Europe has known for over 70 years is a direct result of the union. And he hopes Britons will vote to remain in the 28-nation bloc.
“If they’ve kept the same mentality as 1940, the ‘Remain’ vote will win. They won’t want to leave the European Union,” said Martial, who fought in the Battle of Normandy and helped liberate Brussels in September 1944.
The “Leave” camp pushing for a so-called Brexit from the EU argues that Brussels crushes Britain’s sovereignty, including removing its control over the hot topic of immigration.
Henri d’Oultremont, another Belgian resistance fighter who was based in London, blames the EU for having failed to live up to its ideals.
“This idealistic union which was created and extended, never reached its final goal,” the 91-year-old said. “We never managed to complete this European Union, so we shouldn’t be surprised if some countries are exasperated and want to leave.”
For Benoit Remiche, curator of a World War II museum in the town of Bastogne in the Ardennes forest, the risk of Brexit is symptomatic of an alarming trend in Europe.
“There are very worrying signs, be it in the east or even here at home, of a form of selfishness, a form of nationalism, a belief that if we retreat into ourselves, we might find some solutions,” Remiche warned.
“And I think that could once again lead to barbarism.” He is reminded every day of the price paid in the Ardennes where American and other allied troops suffered tens of thousands of casualties in the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944 when Nazi Germany launched its last offensive.