Contrary to the reams of mockery unleashed on Friday and over the weekend, the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is absolutely the right idea. The EU is one of the great achievements in human history, and its contribution to peace in Europe and elsewhere is beyond doubt.
The only problem is, the Nobel comes at completely the wrong time. It would have made perfect sense 20 years ago when the Cold War was over and Europe was whole, free and at peace for the first time in its history. But with the continent mired in its gravest social and economic crisis since the 1930s and the EU project in danger of unravelling, it feels like a consolation prize — like a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars or a retirement gift for decades of loyal service.
In his 1950 declaration that gave birth to what eventually became the present-day union, French foreign minister Robert Schuman called for the pooling of coal and steel to make war between France and Germany “not only unthinkable, but materially impossible.” Today, a military conflict in the heart of Europe is indeed unimaginable — as it is between other democratic trading nations like the United States and Canada or Australia and New Zealand.
Despite what the cynics say, the EU deserves much of the credit for this for devising a system in which European disputes are solved in drab Brussels boardrooms rather than on battlefields. But it did not act alone. As U.S. President Barack Obama said when accepting his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, “The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions — not just treaties and declarations — that brought stability to a post-World War II world.” The presence of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops helped keep the peace in Europe. NATO continues to supply a security umbrella for most European states. And globalization has bound countries ever closer together through trade and business ties.
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee praised the EU for helping turn Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace.” This is only partly true. While its members have kept the peace between themselves — no mean achievement for a continent that perfected the art of bloodletting — the European Union’s fringes have been anything but peaceful. In the last two decades alone, there have been wars in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and Georgia after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the return of genocide and ethnic cleansing with the violent splintering of Yugoslavia.
“This is the hour of Europe,” declared Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos in 1992 as the Balkans started to burn. But instead of demonstrating Europe’s strength, the conflicts in Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, and finally Kosovo highlighted Europe’s impotence. A club with pretensions to become global a power could not even stop slaughter an hour’s flight from its capital.
As storm clouds gathered over the Balkans in the early 1990s, EU leaders met in Maastricht to sign a treaty that is at the root of many of the bloc’s problems today. Far from uniting Europeans — one of the aims of the single currency that was unveiled in the 1992 treaty — the euro has divided the continent and contributed to the EU’s deepest crisis since its foundation.
It is cruelly ironic that on the day the peace prize was announced, the top four headlines on the European Union page of British broadcaster Channel 4’s website were: “Greek government cracks down on foreigners,” “Greek police clash with protestors during Merkel visit,” “Spanish government set to unveil more cuts,” and “Clashes in Greece as strikers protest austerity measures.”
No wonder the decision was greeted with incredulity on the streets of Athens. “The leader of the E.U. is Germany, which is in an economic war with southern Europe,” retired lawyer Stavros Polychronopoulos told the New York Times. “I consider this war equal to a real war. They don’t help peace.”
This is grossly unfair to Germany, which is helping to bail out the Greek economy. But it is a sign of the dangerous divisions that have resurfaced inside the EU after decades of “ever closer union.” For peace is not just the absence of war. It is harmony between different peoples. It is tolerance of different faiths and beliefs. And it is solidarity between different classes and generations. The EU has constantly fostered these ideals, and authors such as Jeremy Rifkin have argued that these values represent some sort of “European Dream” to rival America’s.
But in 2012, this European Dream lies in tatters. Partly as a result of Europe’s economic woes and the threat to national identity posed by the EU, extremist parties advocating racism, nationalism, and intolerance are on the rise across the continent — a fact recognized by Nobel Peace Prize Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland Friday when he warned: “We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating.” Nobody would benefit from the re-Balkanisation of Europe, which is why Jagland called on Europeans to “focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization.”
At its heart the EU was, and still is, a peace project. But it is an unfinished one. If the Nobel Prize serves any purpose, it should act as a call to responsibility to EU leaders who often adopt an adolescent approach to matters of war and peace. They complain about U.S. hegemony but are unprepared to pay for their nations’ own defence. They lecture the world about European values but are either incapable or unwilling to stand up for them. And they talk of EU solidarity, knowing perfectly well the union has neither the duty nor the capacity to come to the aid of an attacked member — or even, apparently, one whose economy is melting down, until it’s nearly too late.
Whoever accepts the Nobel Prize on behalf of the EU should have the courage to say, as President Obama did in his 2009 speech, that well-meaning declarations are not enough to protect and promote cherished values. Sometimes, preserving peace means preparing for war — as France and Britain understood in Libya. Sometimes, solidarity means writing checks, as well as delivering moral sermons. And sometimes, promoting stability in Europe — for example by speeding up Turkey’s EU entry — means confronting prejudices and arguing that European values only make sense when applied.
The EU’s Nobel recipients should also have the vision to move beyond issues of war and peace entirely. Harking back to 1945 for a raison d’être is hardly the most forward-thinking philosophy for a 21st-century organization. Likewise, warning of a return to war if the euro fails, as some European leaders have, is not the greatest vote of confidence in the core values the bloc has supposedly embedded. If the EU wants to remain relevant in the world and connect with citizens who are rapidly losing faith in the European project, its leaders should use the Oslo award ceremony to offer a new central narrative for the union that resonates with a generation whose only knowledge of continental conflict comes from history books.
This article was first published in Foreign Policy Magazine in October 2012