The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU on Friday was met with predictable derision from the likes of Nigel Farage, who described it the decision as “baffling,” and leader of the Tory MEPs Martin Callanan, who said it was “a little late for an April Fools’ Joke.” Admittedly, the current social unrest across Southern Europe made the award seem a little incongruous, especially coming just days after Angela Merkel’s visit to Greece was met with violent protests in Athens. Yet in fact, this was precisely the logic behind the decision by the Norwegian committee, as explained in their statement; that in these times of instability it is especially important to remember the EU’s contribution to peace and prosperity on the continent. In this way the award serves both as a timely reminder of what the EU has achieved, and as a warning of what could happen if it were to collapse.
The trouble is, most of us now take peace in Europe for granted. The fact that the continent was in a state of perpetual conflict from the collapse of the Roman Empire up until 1945 is too easily forgotten. It is interesting to note that a joint Nobel Peace Prize was given in 1927 to a French and German for their role in promoting Franco-German reconciliation after World War I. Just twelve years later, the continent was at war yet again.
As late as the 1990s, France remained concerned about the threat posed by resurgent Germany after reunification. In fact, this was one of the main rationales behind the euro, as French President Mitterrand wanted to keep Germany firmly anchored in Europe and so demanded that Germany accept monetary union in return for his support for German unification. Nowadays, French and German interests have become so intertwined that the idea of war between the two seems outright ridiculous. Indeed, not long ago we were referring to their leaders in one breath, as ‘Merkozy.’
The spread of democracy, the rule of law and human rights across the European neighbourhood are all largely due to the pull factor of EU membership. Putting aside for a moment their current economic problems, we should not forget the important role the EU played in stabilising democracy in Greece, Portugal and Spain, which were all military dictatorships up until the mid-1970s. We also tend to overlook the EU’s role in encouraging the transition of Eastern European and Baltic states into stable, democratic and relatively prosperous countries. A quick look at former Soviet nations such as Azerbaijan or Belarus shows that such a transition was anything but guaranteed. The EU continues to exert a positive influence in its neighbourhood today, in accession countries such as Croatia, which is due to join next year, and other countries in the Western Balkans. Worldwide, the EU places the promotion of human rights and democracy high on its agenda, while despite the current recession it remains the world’s biggest aid donor.
Of course, there remains much work to be done, not least in solving the Eurozone’s economic problems and addressing the growing social crisis in Southern Europe. The EU also needs to become a more effective actor in its foreign policy, as shown by the failure to adopt a coherent approach to the conflicts in Libya and Syria. But as we look to the 2014 Euro elections, which will of course come on the 100th anniversary of the First World War, it is important to remind people of perhaps the EU’s single greatest achievement. That it has made war with our neighbours so unthinkable that we now take peace for granted.