What? The Nobel Peace Prize? For the European Union? You might just as well give Jimmy Savile a posthumous award for his work for the welfare of children. The spluttering reaction of many in Britain – and not just in Britain – to the peace bombshell from Oslo was predictable. And understandable. In its more than half-century of existence, the European Union (née EEC) has never reached a lower ebb in the affections of its peoples.
The great single currency project, intended to make Europe an economic and financial powerhouse, now threatens to sever the continent along a jagged line between north and south. European governments and the Brussels institutions have tinkered feebly with the debt crisis for more than two years. Their failures and divisions could yet plunge the world into a catastrophic depression.
Opinion polls – even in countries such as Germany, France and the Netherlands –produce large, exasperated majorities of the Euro-hostile, the Euro-sceptic or the Euro-disappointed. Many people who once vaguely or actively approved of the European idea feel that their patience and optimism have been abused.
As the Ukip leader, Nigel Farage, helpfully pointed out, the Nobel prize was awarded to “Brussels” in the same week that the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, was greeted with swastika banners on a visit to Athens. For the first time in half a century, the survival of the EU, and its bedrock, the single European market, are open to doubt.
No better time
And that is why the Nobel Committee in Norway was quite right to give its 2012 peace award to the EU. There could be no better time to remind people of the muddled achievements of the European Union and to warn of the dangers represented by its gradual dissolution or collapse.
The Norwegian committee chairman, Thorbjoern Jagland – although representing a country that never joined the EU – suggested that the peace award was not just about the past but also about the future. We Europeans, he implied, forget too easily what we have achieved in the past half century.
“The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest,” Mr Jagland said. “The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU’s most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights.”
This is an argument that deserves to be made carefully. It is 67 years since there was a major war between European nations. In the 150 years before 1945, there were five. Two of those 19th- and 20th-century European civil wars became world wars in which human beings were slaughtered on an industrial scale.David Cameron in his conference speech this week promised a referendum on continued British membership of the EU. He also announced a series of events to reflect on the importance of the approaching centenary of the 1914-18 war. He did not appear to spot any connection between the two events.
Jaw-jaw not war-war
It would be absurd to suggest that the past seven decades of European peace are entirely due to the well-meaning but flawed institutions of Brussels, Luxembourg and Strasbourg. The argument could just as well be made the other way round. The EU is a symptom, rather than a cause, of the belated European realisation (millions upon millions of deaths later) that endless jaw-jaw is better than periodic war-war.
But the rise of xenophobic, ultra-nationalist parties, from France to the Netherlands and to Hungary, is a reminder of the alternative to the bureaucratic morass in Brussels. What they threaten is not so much immediate armed conflict as destructive, inward-looking policies of beggar-my-neighbour and bugger-human-rights.
EU supporters – one almost feels the need to say apologists these days – can overstate the “seven decades of peace” argument. The EU proved to be largely ineffective when it was faced with a malevolent threat to “peace” in ex-Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
On the other hand, Europhiles and Eurosceptics both tend to overlook the positive role played by the EU in reconnecting – or creating – the wiring of democracy and free markets in the rest of Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet bloc. Much the same role was played in rekindling democracy in Greece, Spain and Portugal in the 1980s.
There were many hesitations, muddles and failures (for which we are still paying to this day). But the Nobel Committee was right to cite the EU’s critical role in demanding, and establishing, a framework of democracy and basic human rights in the ex-tyrannies of southern and Eastern Europe. Without the existence of the EU, some of those countries would have gone the way of Belarus or Moldova – or Russia. If the EU were to collapse, they could still go that way.
Even the most Euro-positive of us have to accept that the project is in the mire. The eurozone idea has turned out to be a successful calamity: successful in creating a European alternative to the dollar; calamitous in allowing sovereign debt in euros to accumulate without the kind of fundamental guarantee provided by the central banks in, say, Washington or London.
Most disturbingly, the crisis points to fundamental flaws – and hypocrisy – in the whole concept of the EU. The richer continental countries signed up to “ever closer union”. Such nations as Germany and the Netherlands benefit enormously from the Big Market. Their public opinion sees no reason why they should underwrite the allegedly profligate, poorer countries of the south.
The solution, says Angela Merkel, is even more central control. But there is no popular fervour anywhere for a more federal Europe. No country – not Germany, not France – is prepared to shift democratic control to Brussels or Strasbourg. Thus, the EU, in the midst of its worst ever economic crisis, also faces an acute resurgence of its near-permanent existential crisis. What is it there for? How should it be run? Why is an institution devoted to democratic values so undemocratic?
In bestowing the 2012 Peace Prize on “Brussels”, the Nobel Committee is urging the EU to answer these questions before it is too late. The message is not addressed to Britain. We ceased to have a serious debate on Europe long ago. The Nobel message is addressed to those countries which used to be the cornerstones of Europe – Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy – but now risk allowing the project to collapse through selfishness and inadvertency.