The EU’s Nobel Peace Prize: Better late than never

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

People like Monnet, Schuman, Altiero Spinelli, Paul-Henri Spaak, Max Kohnstamm, Emile Noël, and Konrad Adenauer, amongst others, were all disappointingly overlooked by the Nobel Committee at the time of the EU’s genesis. Posthumously, this is their Nobel Peace Prize, argues Michael J. Geary.

Dr Michael J. Geary lectures in history of European integration at Maastricht University in the Netherlands, and will be a fellow-in-residence at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, D.C., starting in January 2013.

"The decision by the Norwegian Nobel Committee to award the European Union (EU) with the 2012 Peace Prize has come as a surprise to many.

Defending its decision, the Committee in Oslo heralded over half a century of European stabilisation:

‘The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe’. 

It highlighted the EU’s role in promoting democracy in southern Europe through the process of enlargement particularly since the 1980s – despite the current economic problems throughout southern Europe today, it’s easy to forget how much the EU has facilitated the narrowing of the once-yawning gap between the rich northern countries and the poorer southern ones. 

Since the early 2000s, the integration process has advanced huge strides towards bridging the divide between Eastern and Western Europe. 

These are major developments and accomplishments that we all too often take for granted. The importance of the integration project to European and global peace and security is impossible to measure.

Throughout the EU’s relatively short history, membership has boosted national democratic institutions, and provided greater economic and political inter-dependence from Dublin to Dubrovnik. Its achievements go far beyond the realm of economics. 

Born out of the Second World War, a war that caused the deaths of over 50 million people, the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC)and its successor, the European Economic Community (EEC), attempted (in tandem with the North Atlantic Treaty Organization) to banish the horrors of the past in a spirit of cooperation and reconciliation through sectoral and economic integration, in the shadow of the Cold War that was already dividing Europe shortly after World War II. 

The project worked. Even the United Kingdom’s Conservative Party attempted to join soon after the EEC was created. The Labour Party tried again in 1967, and finally, Conservative Prime Minister Edward Heath was more successful in 1973. 

Margaret Thatcher, as the UK opposition leader, campaigned for a ‘Yes’ vote in the 1975 referendum on British membership. Despite her troubled relationship with Europe during her premiership, she still believed that the EEC had an important role to play in promoting democratic values beyond its borders. 

All of this was a reflection of the success of the model crafted by Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman and others.

The EU is a worthy recipient of this prize. To date, no prominent European involved in the integration process has ever won this award. That is a shame.

People like Monnet, Schuman, Altiero Spinelli, Paul-Henri Spaak, Max Kohnstamm, Emile Noël, and Konrad Adenauer, amongst others, were all disappointingly overlooked by the Nobel Committee at the time of the EU’s genesis. Posthumously, this is their Nobel Peace Prize.

The award represents an opportune moment for reflection even as the eurozone’s sovereign debt crisis continues. 

First, it’s worth noting – especially now – that the EU’s past successes are frequently, and sometimes conveniently, forgotten. Today, the Franco-German relationship is at the heart of Europe and anchors EU policymaking, but those two countries have a much longer and bloodier history of warfare and combat. 

Religious wars, revolutions, and revolts marked Europe out as a bloody continent for centuries.  After the Second World War, vision and public opinion combined to create the ECSC and then the EEC, providing an outlet for the productive re-integration of a defeated, chastened and pacificist West Germany that so tragically failed to materialise after the First World War.  

Through the European institutions, Paris and Bonn/Berlin forged a bond of reconciliation and friendship that has lasted for almost 70 years. Successive rounds of enlargement during the 1970s, '80s, '90s, and 2000s proved that the EU was more than a club for rich, northern European countries. 

The 1980s Mediterranean enlargements, rightly mentioned by the Nobel Committee, significantly contributed to stabilising fledgling democracies. Greece, Spain, and Portugal each faced massive economic and political problems during the 1970s, yet through the stabilising force of the integration process became established members of the EU with democratic credentials beyond question. 

Despite their current economic problems, these countries have made remarkably peaceful transitions from relatively recent military dictatorship, the likes of which would not have been achieved without the EU. 

Second, today’s EU is making an important contribution to promoting its democratic values beyond its borders through: its continued expansion in the Balkans (and possibly beyond); a customs union with Turkey that provides an economic, cultural and diplomatic gateway to the Middle East; its European Neighbourhood Policy; further afield in Africa, through development aid and assistance; and in Asia in challenging China on its human rights record. 

Seventy years ago, this kind of Europe was unimaginable. Today, we have open borders and free markets, prosperity and peace. The EU is a symbol of what can be made possible through dialogue and patient diplomacy.

Some people will argued that the Committee’s decision is 20 years too late or consider it tantamount to an April fool’s joke while austerity takes hold in many EU countries, unemployment rises to dizzying heights and protestors clashing with authorities from Madrid to Athens, all while EU leaders have appeared paralysed in dealing with the debt crisis. 

But that is to lose sight of the huge strides that have been made over the past six decades, especially through peace and reconciliation. 

The 500 million people who live and work in the EU should look upon this prize with a sense of pride that after centuries of conflict, the guns are silent."

Subscribe to our newsletters