The EU's Nobel Peace Prize

On Monday 10th December 2012, the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. For better or worse, the prize focuses attention on an important question: does Europe need peacebuilding?

That the EU will henceforth be a Nobel Laureate will stick entertainingly in the craw of a lot of right-of-centre politicians here in England (not so many in Scotland and Wales, a fair few in Northern Ireland). It will also make a few to the left feel a bit queasy, and this is also surfacing in Norway where there has been a snow storm in a tea-cup about the award. But it’s the right-wing ones who will be more entertaining about it - some intentionally, some not. All this shouldn’t distract us more than a little from some worthwhile questions.

When the prize was announced back in October, what did you think? Was it deserved or undeserved? Timing-wise, did you find it daft or shrewdly encouraging? Did it remind you about the giants who originally promoted the idea of integrating European countries in the name of peace (giants including, annoyingly for English conservative Euro-phobes and sceptics, their iconic Winston Churchill)? Or did it make you think about the ineffective efforts of today’s can-kickers facing protracted crisis and apparently unable to conquer it despite one summit after another?

Credit for peace

There are various ways of answering the questions about whether the prize is merited and whether the timing is awry. There has long been a discussion, for example, about whether the EU, going back to its origins in the European Coal and Steel Community, established by treaty in 1951, has played a less or more important role than NATO in making Europe since 1945 into a much more peaceful place than it was for the four centuries before.

Denying the EU and its antecedents a place in the explanation of how Europe became more (though far from wholly) peaceful and giving NATO all the credit is pretty unconvincing. It would seem to propose that economics and political cooperation around anything except military policy are irrelevant to peace and security. It would also simply wave off all the evidence that prospective membership of the EU acted as a real incentive for making a peaceful, law-based and democratic transition in eastern Europe after the end of the Cold War in 1989-91.

Equally though, the enthusiastic write-up of the EU as an enterprise of peace risks ignoring both the role of others and the EU’s inadequacies at key moments. Peaceful relations in Europe grew partly out of economic and political cooperation in western Europe, but also through the very confrontation of  rival superpowers and their respective blocs that also made Europe a region of high risk for a prolonged period. The inadequacies of the EU were most starkly seen in its comprehensive inability to limit let alone prevent the mayhem in the western Balkans in the early-to-mid-1990s.

The EEAS

It is only since then, and in part because of those failures in the Balkans, that the EU has taken seriously the job of becoming an actor in international affairs, with the establishment of the European External Action Service two years ago under the leadership of Catherine Ashton.

The strongest critics of the EU, and therefore of it getting the Nobel Prize, often seem to think they have an easy target in the EEAS and its head. Much of the criticism ignores two things: the realities of building an institution and the limits on this one’s role so far.

The initial few years of building an institution are not usually expected to bring any part of the work to finalisation. Ashton’s task has often been likened to flying a plane while still building it.

If I were going to be critical of the EU getting the prize and if I were going to include the EEAS somewhere in the argument, I wouldn’t be going after the EEAS itself or its leader so much as the other key reality about it – its highly constrained role. Having set it up, EU member states have in different combinations and at different times worked to divert it from being effective on issues they find important.

Nonetheless, the EEAS is beginning to look like a proper organisation and its head has done some good things – many of them off the radar of day-to-day political reporting. I’ll try to return to the topic in the New Year, partly because 2013 is the year for the important ‘mid-term review‘ of the EEAS.

Peace within

On the same day that the EU was feted in Oslo, in London International Alert convened a forum on peacebuilding in Europe.

Here is where I would focus questions about the EU getting the peace prize now – on the home front. I have addressed the issue a couple of times before this year – in an article in Die Zeit and in two posts on this blog. Some of these thoughts grew straight out of my first reflections on the riots in England in August 2011.

Over the past couple of years there have been different kinds of violent expressions of disaffection, from England’s riots to the monstrous massacre of young political activists in Norway that summer, through the discovery or immigrants murdered by right-wing extremists in Germany, to the anger of the anti-austerity, anti-government riots in Greece and the thin patina that stands between order and a similarly angry chaos in several other countries.

This atmosphere of dissatisfaction and violence does not arise everywhere from the same source nor does it by any means take the same social or political form. In Greece, for example, it gets expressed at both ends of the political spectrum. In England, it erupted with almost no politics, except local politics in one area of northeast London, where the first violence occurred.

But these different instances occur in a political and social landscape where people’s sense of social belonging and engagement in the common good is challenged as never before. It is challenged by austerity economics as job opportunities and the belief in a better future diminish before our eyes and the social safety net is shredded. In many countries, politics is ever more distant from growing segments of the population, especially among the poor and among the young. In Italy, the new leadership installed to see Italy peacefully through its austere era is giving up the ghost and the old leadership (if that’s the right word to use about Berlusconi) may be coming back.

Ordinary people feel they are paying the price for mistakes they did not make while those who had the biggest part in the errors in politics and finance are paying a much smaller price if any. Some people direct their anger at the injustices at the political establishment, some at the finance world and some – in their confusion at this diminished sense of belonging – against immigrants. But even when the anger is mis-targeted and even when the accusations are false, the feelings that lie behind are real. And sometimes lethal.

If I were to ask questions about whether today the EU deserves a prize for its historical contribution to peace, I would ask if the EU and the prize-givers are perhaps looking too hard at the past. It is on the European-wide home front that we now face some of the greatest challenges to the social and political peace that has been so painstakingly and sometimes painfully and riskily constructed over the past 65 or so years, a process in which, indeed, the EU and its antecedents played an important role.

Important, indeed - but what concerns me now are today and tomorrow.

Deserved or not?

Ultimately, is the prize deserved or not? Ultimately, what’s it matter? Today and henceforth whenever it refers to itself as a Nobel Laureate, the EU gets the chance to recall that it came into being out of an idea that by people and governments of different countries working more closely together, the prospects for peace could be improved. That is and has always been an idea that is simultaneously noble and viable. It is an enterprise worth taking seriously.

EU leaders should think of themselves as the current bearers of that torch and think more carefully about the current challenges.

It might help them to think again, to find a different way, when next they feel tempted to kick an economic can down the road and put the burden of paying the costs of the great financial crash on the shoulders of the people who are least to blame and can least afford to pay.

Fairness is a big part of peace.


Originally published on Monday 10th December on Dan's blog.

About the author

Dan Smith has been the Secretary General of International Alert since 2003. He was previously Director of the International Peace Research Institute in Oslo from 1993 to 2001, and Chair of the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.

His many books include successive editions of the Atlas of War and Peace. He advises governments and international organisations on peacebuilding, including through his membership of the Advisory Group for the UN Peacebuilding Fund which he currently chairs. He was awarded an OBE in 2002.