By Giovanni Castaldo
On October 12 the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The prize is an epochal recognition that consecrates a brave, sometimes utopian, fast-growing project, acknowledging its relevance in Europe and the world at large. In announcing the award, Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said “The EU has transformed a continent of wars to a continent of peace.” He added that the prize is meant to celebrate six decades of reconciliation in which the European Union has struggled for peace, human rights and democracy.
It sounds fair enough and pretty straightforward. Indeed, the achievements of the European Union exceed description. Nevertheless, it is worth trying to enumerate them to grasp their importance. War between France and Germany, a common pattern in the 19th and 20th centuries, is now unthinkable. Nigel Farage, a United Kingdom’s Independence Party (UKIP) member, said that there is no prospect of such a war happening again (sounds like what British politicians used to say after WWI). Moreover, he claimed that the same peaceful result would not have occurred if it was not for the NATO and American soldiers deployed in Europe throughout the last century.
The assumption that military intervention is needed to foster a long lasting harmonic and peaceful environment is extremely weak. Heather Grabbe, director of the Open Society European Policy Institute, part of the U.S.-based Open Society Foundations, said that the European Union gave France and Germany alternative ways of resolving their economic difficulties. She also said it was the only body able to bring a whole range of peace-building measures to troubled regions, such as the Balkans. The United States and NATO could not, because neither had the political power to do the necessary institution-building.
Nowadays, the Balkans represent one of the most vivid examples of the success of the European Union in settling conflicts and in promoting adherence to human rights and democracy. The human rights ‘conditionality’ and the parallel proliferation of requirements to apply for membership in the Council of Europe have stimulated compliance to those principles in the region. Moreover, financial assistance granted to projects launched to support human rights and democratic development has also increased the speed of the whole process. Croatia will join the European Union next year, Montenegro is negotiating its membership, and Serbia is already a candidate. This political and social evolution would not have been possible through either NATO or the United States.
The Balkans’ integration follows the admission of the former Mediterranean dictatorships in the 1970s (Greece, Spain and Portugal) and of the former Soviet countries in the 1990s. Turkey, also aiming at eventually joining the European Union, is implementing policies to adapt to European standards.
The European Union, as Turkey’s policies targeting democratization show, is not a body whose influence is restricted to Europe. Its message of unity and evolution is instead symbolically and materially powerful in the world at large: if conflicts in specific areas have existed for centuries, that doesn’t mean that things cannot change. It’s not a coincidence that both Israel and Palestinians congratulated the European Union for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize and both said they expected it to continue its peacemaking efforts. The Israeli foreign ministry said in a statement that the union “crystallizes the way of reason and compromise through which nations can overcome hostility and ancient conflicts, and establish good neighborly relations, mutual trust and cooperation for the common good”. The Palestinian foreign minister, for his part, expressed regret that the peacemaking Quartet in which the European Union also worked has not done its job.
The European Union directs its democratizing influence toward its neighbors and even toward the Third World. The European Neighborhood Policy, without offering possibility of accession to the European Union, offers neighbors from Libya to Azerbaijan closer political links, partial economic integration, support to meet E.U. standards and assistance with economic and social reforms. Its economic and super-governmental power also allows it to decisively react to repressions of human rights principles and authoritarian governments. On an even larger scale, the European Union is committed to global objectives. Just one example is the work of the African Peace Facility, which addresses African peace and security actions at regional and continental levels.
All these accomplishments and projects (that are just some of a long list) didn’t prevent a lot of people from disagreeing with the Nobel committee’s decision. Excluding particular ideologies, the main reason for such scorn is the Euro-zone economic crisis and the social tension it has led to. Indeed, the timing of the award fuels the majority of the controversy. Three days before the announcement, Angela Merkel’s visit to Athens was greeted by 50,000 people burning swastika flags and throwing Molotov cocktails. Not the sort of peaceful and warm welcome that would be expected within an institution worthy of the Nobel peace prize.
The financial crisis has certainly challenged the economic and political stability of the European Union, finally compelling members to face the postponed problem of sovereignty. The structure of the Euro-zone as a monetary union without fiscal unity, and more broadly as an economic union but not a political one, greatly exacerbated the fallout of the financial crisis. To answer a possible catastrophe, EU member states are now implementing austerity measures meant to stimulate fiscal growth and competitiveness. The damages of these policies, as the International Monetary Fund has stated, are believed to have exceeded the benefits. As a consequence, social unrest has been rising and rising, in particular in those countries, like Portugal, Ireland and Greece, where the austerity measures have had more direct effects on the impoverished population.
In spite of such an analysis, Barroso, the President of the European Commission, defended the legitimacy of the Nobel prize by denying the European Union’s faults in contributing to the financial crisis. When interviewed by CNN, he said it was rather caused by irresponsible behavior in the financial sector and by the excessive debts of governments. He then added that the increased responsibility due to such an honor will stimulate further efforts to solve the economic crisis.
Whoever fault it is, the present economic crisis does not by any means have to overshadow either the peace efforts of the European Union through its history or its accomplishments. However, it does call for a necessary change of its political and economic power and its relations with single governments. The right path is hard to find. The Nobel Peace Prize will be an important reminder that European integration is a peace project more than anything else.
Image by European Parliament