The EU and the Nobel

A ‘victim’ of its own success, the Union struggles under unrealistic expectations

Opinion | Jessica Spiegel | February 2013

In Oslo’s City Hall on 10 December, European Union leaders accepted the world’s most prestigious award for efforts at making the world a better place: the Nobel Peace Prize. There was plenty of grumbling, even among revered Nobel laureates like Desmond Tutu: Did the EU really deserve to be set apart as a driver of peace? The occasion also resuscitated arguments about the role of outside forces – the U.S., NATO, the threat of the Soviet Union – in inspiring the post-war European miracle.

But external factors always influence internal results, and perfection is an illusion – even among Nobel laureates. At the ceremony, the Nobel Committee commended the Union for "six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe." Who could argue that the EU, especially given the blood-soaked past from which it escaped, has not promoted fraternity between nations – one of the standing tenets of Alfred Nobel?

But winning the prize may also require more than overcoming a sordid past. It should also be an inspiration for the future and a wakeup call for the present.

A hard look at today’s EU reveals something other than an Alpine Shangri-la: The eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis has wreaked havoc on the larger Union for the past three years, riots in response to harsh austerity measures continue, right-wing groups like Greece’s Golden Dawn rise up in the background of wavering cohesion. Some Eurosceptics predict a spectacular collapse.


Unprecedented crisis, unprecedented action

A view through a less clouded lens might reveal a glitch, albeit it a dangerously large one, in a process that has made Europe a victim of its own momentum. This continues to create unreasonable expectations.

But while the storm rages on, Europe has been extremely busy. João Vale de Almeida, head of the Delegation of the European Union to the United States, was quick to point this out during a recent panel discussion at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

"While dealing with a crisis of an unprecedented nature," Almeida said, "we’re dealing with it in unprecedented ways – creating new mechanisms, new funds, new money, a new articulation of power." Indeed, while the U.S., China and Russia were paralysed, able only to look inward during their respective political transitions of 2012, the year-end EU summit this December witnessed agreement to place large banks under direct supervision of the European Central Bank, release new and long-delayed funds to troubled economies and set the stage for unified procedures for orderly bank closures. The march towards ever-closer union trudges on.

And as an inspiration for the future? "I think Europeans were very ambitious about the idea that they represented the future," said Robert Kagan, an American historian, author and founder of the neoconservative Project for the New American Century. "Unfortunately, the future looks more like Europe’s past than Europe’s present." The world, more unstable in the face of a shifting balance of powers, is begging for guidance. Europe already contributes a disproportionately large percentage of the world’s development assistance aid, but if it aspires to broaden its ideals beyond its borders the EU may need to move beyond "soft power" tactics.

There is already a big difference between the EU of the Bosnian War and the EU of the Arab Spring; its decisive sanctions and freezing of assets in the case of Libya assisted the decisive outcome. In Syria, the EU has deployed every sanction in its tool box in record time to hamper President Assad’s tyrannical regime. But progress may not mean much as long as blood continues to flow.

And now the Mali crisis is unfolding at Europe’s feet. An EU military training mission will be dispatched by mid-February, but that may be futile in the face of a gargantuan African problem. Fortunately, the EU has managed to use past crises and failures to its advantage; the Balkan embarrassment in the 1990s led to the creation of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and the 2003 Iraq War crisis saw the birth of a common European vision on security threats for the first time. Maybe the rise of an Al-Qaeda-inspired theocracy in Europe’s backyard will be the crisis necessary to finalise the coherent foreign policy Europe needs to bring peace beyond its borders.

Or maybe the EU was destined for a subtler mission.

"Europe is an enormous gift to the world, in and of itself," Kagan said confidently from the podium at the Brookings Institute. "If nothing else ever happened but that Europe remained at peace – and remained at peace in the kind of prosperity and democracy-producing way that it is – this by itself would be the greatest contribution Europe could make."

To this end alone, the EU will have to work hard. The inevitability of human nature threatens all projects that propel us beyond our habitual tendencies toward conflict and destruction. This year’s Nobel Peace Prize, then, must not be allowed to be a swan song – sung to an exceptional human experiment before it succumbs to the infection of historical circularity. Europe represents an unprecedented triumph at bringing vicious cycles to a halt. For this, it deserves the Nobel Prize – and with it a reminder that the world is watching.

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