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?