Monday 15 October 2012

Arise, EU: Nobel Peace Prize

Much sound, fury and ridicule has characterised the British response to the decision by the Nobel Peace Prize committee to award this year’s gong to the European Union. The Committee singled out the "EU's contribution for over six decades to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe" in its announcement last week, which seemed to surprise the EU more than anyone else. A rushed morning press conference (above) saw a somewhat ruffled President Barroso confess to having been taken completely by surprise, before he smoothed himself down and was professing himself not to have been surprised at all by the evening's television news schedules.

It’s easy to mock. Even easier when you have comic characters to point at, as the current tussle between Barroso and Van Rompuy to collect the prize will illustrate.

And all too easy to find fault with the rationale, either by pointing to the current descent into unrest being experienced in Greece, itself provoked by the ignoring of its own rules by the Eurozone in admitting politically expedient but non-convergent economies, or by referring to the inability of the EU to do anything meaningful to stop the bloodshed in the Balkans without US assistance.

But is that really the whole picture? My own reaction to the announcement, coming hard on the heels of the award to President Obama just two years ago, was to join the chorus of disapproval. But thinking about it during the day, perhaps as President Barroso smoothed down his best suit to pitch for the chance to collect the prize, I found myself recanting.

The Committee said it valued the stabilising part played by the EU that "has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace". The work of the EU, it argued, represents "fraternity between nations", and amounts to a form of the "peace congresses" to which Alfred Nobel referred as criteria for the Peace Prize in his 1895 will.

The big picture here, surely, is that the European Coal and Steel Community effectively locked France and Germany together and made renewed conflict a remote prospect. You needed coal and steel to make guns and armies and if you depend on each other for even that basic ability, well, best to make the marriage work.

It’s been a rocky marriage but it’s survived. And there is no union like it anywhere else in the world. Not many political projects stand the test of six decades, and none have faced the scale of the challenges that have been thrown at it over the years, from German reunification and the end of the Cold War to the present economic crisis. And there hasn’t, after all, been another general European war.

Perhaps the message from Norway, itself not a member of course, is simply to take care, in facing the biggest and potentially the most terminal challenge to date. You never quite realise what you have till it’s gone.

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