The EU has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and, of course, opinions flow. This is no surprise. It’s what people do, and the EU attracts in equal measure both vitriol and genuflection. Some might say the EU, and whether you are a supporter of it or not, is a totemic issue of our times, much like asking non-Americans if they are for Obama or for Romney, as if the average non-American actually cares who wins the next US election, let alone understands the policy differences of the two candidates.
For a while now, in the UK, support for the EU has been seen through the prism of progressive and reactionary politics, and for reactionary read conservative in all its forms. Or at least this is the case for those who have a heightened interest in politics and the importance and veracity of their own opinion. At times I worry this is me, but no matter. And the result is hyperbole. You’re with us or against us, it’s black or white, you either love Obama or hate him – nothing in between.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, for once, we could luxuriate in moderation, and just accept that some arguments are marginal and you can accept that some things have merits but overall you might be against them, because, you know, in aggregate the policy or the organisation just doesn’t seem right to you? It would be nice, but perhaps a little boring, and newspapers might find it difficult to generate that certainty of opinion they seem to think helps them sell to their punters.
And so it is with the EU. There are reasons to support it and reasons to oppose it; it does things of benefit and of harm; it spreads democracy and at the same time reduces it. And in this case, it supports peace and also does things that undermine peace. There is validity in both sides of the argument, and someone’s decision to support or oppose the EU comes from an amalgamation of its features – or it should do.
My initial reaction to the news the EU had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was to think of Obama winning it in 2009 for absolutely no discernible reason other than seeming to embody people’s optimistic hope for something better. Perhaps hope is as important as concrete achievement. No, me neither. My second reaction was to wonder when the economics prize was coming. Yet the EU’s claim over sixty years is far greater than Obama’s was in 2009.
The EU is, whether some like it or not, a great human and political achievement. It is the organisation that has bound Germany and France together in economic and political inter-dependence, and it is the organisation that has encouraged democracy in the new accession states after their years of Soviet oppression. It has also sponsored, admittedly with our own money, a myriad of cultural exchanges and programs that are all designed to promote harmony in Europe.
Alfred Nobel wrote in his will that the prize should go to ‘the person who shall have done most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congress.’ And surely the EU qualifies in some measure. This year’s citation reads: ‘for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.’ And it has.
But the problem with the award is not that it was made, but that reaction to it is too often dominated by either ‘vitriol or genuflection.’ The award shows the committee to be either morally bankrupt or far-sighted and wise. While a strong case can be made for the EU as an engine of peace, it is also arguable that the EU is laying the foundations for non-peace. Look only at the streets of Greece and see where it’s hubris might be taking the continent. It’s not the Second World War, but who knows what will happen. And look what it is doing to democracy in those same struggling states.
Another problem is the award seems to add credence to the view that it was only the EU that enabled peace in Europe, or at least that it was the main reason for it. Too often, other factors are ignored or downplayed: German war-weariness, European war-weariness, the balance brought about by East-West polarity, the threat of Nuclear annihilation, the parking of the US and British armies in the middle of Europe for decades, and yes, the ascendency of free market economics in western Europe and the inter-dependencies this encouraged.
I don’t actually have a problem with the Nobel Peace Prize going to the EU. Some say it lost its credibility when Kissinger got it in 1973, not to mention Barrack Obama in 2009, but this is not my reason. I don’t mind because the EU has done a lot of good. What I do mind, though, is the way the facts of history and common sense are subordinated to factional loyalty. This makes for bad decision-making and bad policy, and there is ample evidence that the EU has been making bad policy in other significant areas for decades, and it is only a matter of time before that becomes fully and depressingly apparent.
What I would like to know, however, is this: if the EU gets a peace prize – where’s NATO’s? And why is it that some people believe good things only happen, and can only happen, in Europe through the EU?