The awarding of this year's Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is an appropriate recognition of one of the most significant departures in modern history to advance the cause of peace. Awarding the prize to the EU is best seen as a big-picture, long-term sort of recognition. It is consistent in that regard with the award of many Nobels in the scientific categories, which often recognize work that was done decades earlier but had significance that would be proven only later.
The committee that decides on the peace prize has shown a tendency in recent years to use the prize to make statements about issues of current concern. Maybe there was some of that thinking as well in its decision this year, with the prize intended to compensate for what even committed Europeanists would have to admit has not been one of the EU's happier periods. But that need not detract from the larger significance of what is being recognized.
Some of the initial responses within Europe to the Nobel committee's decision have been colored by whatever gripes about Brussels people happen to have at the moment. These responses are of a piece with what has been an unfortunate tendency lately to think of European integration only in terms of the fiscal and economic crisis in the euro zone. The common-currency project is not to be equated with the European Union. And although the next steps in that project are uncertain, it should be remembered that the disharmony entailed in a monetary union that precedes a fiscal union is the sort of creative tension that European founding fathers had in mind in using economics to propel political integration.
What is even more worth remembering—and the Nobel prize serves as a useful reminder—is the central idea, founding concept and biggest historic contribution of the whole experiment in European integration: the overcoming of divisions that have, at enormous cost, repeatedly torn the Continent apart. That tearing took the form of round after round of warfare through centuries. This long, violent history has involved absolute monarchies, modern dictatorships and democracies alike, culminating in the multilateral bloodlettings of the first half of the twentieth century. The harmful impact extending beyond Europe is captured by our reference to these last conflicts as “world wars.” The European integration project managed to move a substantial portion of the Continent, within just a few years, from the biggest and in some respects most savage of the bloodlettings to a different set of identities that have made unthinkable any new war between some of the nations that had been principal protagonists in the old ones. We should not forget how huge and wonderful a development in human history this has been.
May the European Union not only enjoy an enduring peace in its own lands but also serve as an inspiration in overcoming the destructive consequences of competing nationalisms elsewhere. Congratulations on the Nobel prize, EU; you've earned it.
Image: Sébastien PODVIN avril 2005