Perhaps with hindsight the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union should come as little surprise. It could be greeted as the successful culmination of a considerable lobbying campaign. From the original inception of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, the avoidance of war has been the number one priority of European integration.
Yet, as Channel 4 News wryly tweeted after the announcement, the award in 2012 seems a grim irony when faced with the recent headlines of violent clashes in Athens and Spain after the announcement of more savage austerity measures. Italy is presided over by unelected technocrat prime minister Mario Monti - a former European Commissioner – appointed to enact stability measures for the future of the Eurozone. The European citizens who packed into an event I chaired at London’s Foyles bookshop this week, entitled “Riots & revolutions: Europe’s young radicals?” did not, unlike the Nobel committee, have the ‘continent of peace’ at the forefront of their minds.
Even the EU’s greatest champions seem to have been intent on talking down its chances of late. Only last year Angela Merkel was warning that ‘no one should take it for granted that there will be peace and affluence in Europe in the next half century.’ Nick Clegg warned back in May that Europe was potentially facing ‘disaster…(from) a whole range of nationalist, xenophobic and extreme movements.’
The whole script has a familiar ring to it. While the crisis has brought such warnings into stark relief, similar anguish-ridden pronouncements were emerging from Brussels even in the now halcyon-seeming pre-crash days. The voters of France, Netherlands and Ireland were charged with a similar destructive tendency after rejecting the EU Constitution and very similar Lisbon Treaty back when commentators were publishing books entitled Why Europe Will Run The 21st Century.
Of course this is far from the first controversial, even baffling, announcement in the Nobel Peace Prize’s chequered history. Much like when Barack Obama was awarded it in 2009 before barely getting comfortable in the Oval Office, the move is considered symbolic: a show of faith and hope in the ability to weather the challenges ahead. As the EU has faltered in its ability to offer its citizens an inspiring vision for the future of European harmony, built upon rich heritage and economic potential, its historic Cold War role of maintaining peace has become the one last resort for its army of technocrats and bureaucrats to engage the people even as it displaces their elected leaders.
Yet just as Obama’s prize – after a term in office which has seen an intensification of drone attacks on Pakistan - now inspires cynicism rather than popular indignation at his policies, there is a danger that response to the Nobel can equally become eye-rolling. Euroscepticism has now become a popular default position among the commentariat who, prior to the Eurozone crisis, were only too happy to denounce suspicion of the anti-democratic tendencies of the institution as xenophobia and racism. To be anti-EU was, we were repeatedly reminded, was to be anti-Europe: someone intent on dragging the continent back to the darkest days of the 20 century. Yeats’ famous dictum that ‘the centre cannot hold’ has become an oft-cited refrain for those examining the seeming resurgence of a new far-right across mainland Europe, the willingness to hold up the centre occasionally blinding commentators to the contemporary national particularities of such populist movements in favour of easy 1930s parallels.
The award can be read partially as an attempt to regain the moral high ground of Europhilia: to be against a political institution in its current form is now apparently to be anti-peace as well as anti-European. It is now more important than ever for anti-EU pro-Europeans to rise to the challenge of the moment and to intellectually reclaim the progressive elements in long-derided concepts such as national sovereignty. To do so is not an easy task and requires holding our own national governments to account: Brussels has been repeatedly an all-to-easy target for authorities to evade responsibility for unpopular policies and decisions.
We are a long way away from the ‘European Spring’ which some campaigners excitedly discussed back when Hollande was elected in France with the promise to reject European austerity. Yet, rather than responding to the Nobel this morning by choking on their brioche, spitting out their latte or hurling their olive oil against the wall, if Europe’s citizens could channel their bewilderment into a serious criticism of what the EU is and its future direction, then there could be reasons for cautious optimism.
David Bowden is the UK satellite co-ordinator for the Battle of Ideas festival. On Saturday 20 October the Battle for Europe strand features a day of debates featuring European writers, philosopher, dissidents and activists examining the state of contemporary Europe
Independent Voices is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest articles from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.