A peace prize for a continent that’s far from tranquillity
If, upon hearing the news that the Nobel Peace Prize is going to the European Union, the first response is “You’ve got to be kidding”, the second must be… “they’ve got a point.” The third is: But how much of a point?
You’ve got to be kidding is easy enough. The demonstrations, the strikes, the protests. An unprecedented police presence in Athens to ensure the prime minister of friendly Germany, Angela Merkel, is safe from angry mobs. The military in Spain hinting they may intervene to stop the country breaking up. A stream of opinion pieces speculating on Greek exit, euro collapse…and/or German domination. A faltering of the belief, on the part of most European intellectuals, that the EU was a unique, enlightenment project that showed the world (and particularly the United States) what peaceful, consensual spread of civic virtues looked like.
And then, in the midst of this, with no guarantee that all will be well, the European Union gets the Nobel Peace Prize, joining past winners Martin Luther King Jr., Lech Walesa and Andrei Sakharov, among others. One of these is not like the others.
This latest prize, then, has echoes of the Nobel committee’s last beguiling selection: Barack Obama. I thought in 2009 that it was a bad idea, not because I didn’t admire him, but because I did. I admired him for his intelligence, his ability to enthuse and his seriousness, but I didn’t know how good a president he would be (nor, of course, did he). To give him a prize before he had proved himself one way or the other was to fall into the same trap as much of the media: that is, to conflate the fact that he was the first black president of the U.S. with his ability as a president – to assume that because race no longer automatically barred some ethnicities from the highest office, that he was already a world historic figure (shouldn’t the prize have gone to the U.S. electorate?). It was to make race the defining element in him. Yet here was a man who was an American, an intellectual, and a politician and who made it clear, as he had throughout his career, he was to be judged as such.
If Obama was a prize too soon, the EU’s award seems one too late. The Union was indeed conceived by its founding fathers as a mechanism first of all for ending war. Though I believe the progressive determination of the German people to face the horrors they had visited on the world was and remains the key to decades of peace, there’s little doubt that the enterprise for peace was assisted by a framework – in which Germany most of all believed – that gave them (and Italy) an entry into a democratic club. The system played the same role for Greece, Portugal and Spain, all countries where authoritarian governments, with much blood on their hands, were replaced by parties and leaders who also used Europe to give democracy legitimacy. But these were now decades ago. They spurred a wave of European optimism then. So why – as sane voices call for an end to the Union – now?
That’s where they’ve got a point comes in. By taking for granted that peace is firmly established, we diminish or neglect the EU’s part in it. We forget, if we knew, how hard it was to forgive, to start again. We forget the era when the former communist states of Central Europe broke from the Soviet bloc because their new (and some old) politicians saw in the EU a return to a European identity. It was a union that was voluntary and consensual, and one in which politics was influenced but not dictated – there would be no tanks when countries strayed from the line. The late Ralph Dahrendorf, in his Reflections on the Revolution in Europe, wrote that there should no longer be one way to run a society, but a hundred – “and we can forever learn from each other in framing our own way.”
The present crisis has cast a fog over that. In despair that the Union has not achieved what many wished (an integrated state) we see, in the depth of the crisis, the end of the attempt. We can forget that in being what it is – a collection of independent states that do many things together – it has produced huge and benign change. That is a very large point to get.
Despite all this, how much of a point does the committee have in awarding its prize to the Union? Not enough, it seems to me, for a prize like the Nobel. Not now. Had it been awarded in 1950, when the first blueprint of the Union – the Coal and Steel Community – was constructed, or when it brought in the southern authoritarian states, or when the former communist countries joined, there would have been a coming together of symbol and facts on the ground, comprehensible to all, a real inspiration at every level. Prizes like the Nobel must have a wide public resonance, a sense in the world audience that it’s fitting, a prize in time.
To award it now seems out of joint. It’s meant, it seems, as an encouragement, a way of saying that times are tough, but remember you were great once and can be again. But Europe is in too much contention for a gesture of that kind. Its fissures are too wide and too real. The gulf at the core of it – that the crisis demands greater integration while the people of Europe seem to oppose it – is much wider than it has ever been. The job of European politicians in nearly every state is a doleful one for as far ahead as we can see. It is to cut and cut again, to reduce, radically in some instances, what Europeans had come to assume was their birthright – an efficient and generous welfare state.
These conflicts may yet be resolved. Leaving aside extremists, no European – whatever view she holds on the utility or desirability of the Union – can seriously wish collapse. The consequences have been shown, clearly enough, to be deeply harmful, not just to Europe but also to the world. The Union, if it is to survive, has great changes to make, changes that will strain its fabric and exhaust its leaders. If and when they succeed, that would be worth a Nobel Peace prize. But they’ve already got it – like Barack Obama – before they’ve properly begun.
PHOTO: Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland speaks as he announces the European Union as the recipient of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, October 12, 2012. The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for its historic role in uniting the continent in an award meant as a morale boost for the bloc as it struggles to resolve its debt crisis. REUTERS/Heiko Junge/NTB Scanpix