Monday 15 October 2012

The Nobel Peace Prize Debate

The news that the EU will be awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize was quite a surprise, and it caught a continent off guard. Praise for the EU? The constant drip-drip of bad news and mini-crises bubbling up as the Great Recession rumbles on has made any major show of support for the idea of European unity, beyond crisis-fighting necessity - almost unthinkable. It was a controversial decision, and I've mixed feelings about it.

Ironically, I wrote a post two months ago arguing that pro-Europeans should move away from arguing for the EU based on its peace mission, and now it's the focus of continental debate. While I agree that the EU deserves the prize, I do have a few reservations about the timing and the manner of the award.

The EU deserves the Peace Prize

The EU has been amazingly successful as a peace project in Europe, ensuring the reconciliation between France and Germany, it has helped anchor European states in democracy and it has provided a structure of rules and constant negotiation that promotes and secures a culture of problem-solving that rests on diplomacy and even transnational democracy (if a flawed transnational democracy). As I argued in my post on retiring the pro-European peace argument, purely military alliances do not build such a culture and allies, such as Greece and Turkey, could even have their relations collapse and move towards serious conflict.

It's important to stress that peace - and particularly a sustainable, lasting peace - isn't simply the absence of war, but the presence of a working system and culture that brings countries together in a way that solving problems peacefully and cooperatively becomes not just more workable, but the norm. The EU provides a system of cooperation and negotiation that is constant, building a community of values and interests that helps bind Europe together and sustains that culture of peace between the Member States. Of course peace wouldn't collapse tomorrow if the EU disappeared, but without a sustainable system the norms underwriting peace would be eroded. Like the burning of financial regulation and the gradual disappearance of a culture of restraint within the financial sector that could lead to abuse and a hollowing out of the system, the peace in Europe requires constant maintenance.

The arguments against the EU deserving the prize seem weak to me. That the EU did not bring peace to the Western Balkans in the '90s is a low point in its history, but the EU didn't (and doesn't) have that kind of foreign policy and defence power if the Member States don't act. That's not to say that the EU would have done a fantastic job if it did have those powers (who can guess what might have happened?), but the EU's capabilities for promoting peace outside its borders are restricted to the carrot of enlargement, peacekeeping, and foreign aid - not dealing with hot conflicts. The soft power brought by the EU to the former Yugoslav states through the promise of enlargement - integration into the peace and economic system of the continent - has helped boost the movement toward the democratic and peaceful European mainstream in those countries.

And while I feel that there are issues with the timing, I don't think the EU deserves the award any less now for what it has already achieved. The current economic policies may be wrong, but the mission of creating a Europe where war is unthinkable has been largely achieved thanks in large part to the EU.

Problems with timing and intent

Though there's peace between the Member States and no suggestion of armed conflict, the social problems that have scared the lives of millions within the EU as a result of the economic crisis and misguided economic policy led by the European Council makes the award ring hollow. Though the EU deserves the prize for its work, the motive behind the award seems to lend the EU some political capital to help it solve the crisis. A Nobel prize awarded to boost peace efforts is by definition controversial and is vital and necessary work for the Nobel Committee. But here the questions for resolving the crisis are essentially questions of domestic policy, and I think it's a bit too far removed from the classical peace building work. It would have been preferable if the award was given in circumstances that better recalled the good work of the EU, rather than being delivered as a pointed reminder that we risk messing up our continent and the global economy.

Highlighting the EU's Shame

Increasingly, the intended message behind the prize seems to me to shame the EU: it has achieved a lot, and it could achieve more by way of solving its own crisis, but so far it is failing. Pro-Europeans should not see this simply as a boost to the credibility of the EU (as if credibility could be so easily boosted), but take seriously the challenge of conflict resolution. The current EU system is failing at resolving the conflict and tensions within it, and the solution applied to the crisis should not just be about finding the right technical remedy, but in fashioning a system that all Member States and citizens can buy into. This means a greater European democracy, baked up with substance - a project not to be left to elites, but dependant on citizens too.

Using the Nobel prize to help boost a political position that is largely domestic (as in the case of awarding Obama with the prize), devalues the Nobel Prize. Even though the peace aspect is less indirect in this case, it's still a bit of a stretch in the current climate. The EU deserves the Peace Prize and it needs a shot in the arm, but it's unfortunate that it was the Nobel Committee that felt it had to take it upon themselves to make an argument for the EU. We should be doing better than this.


  1. Conor: You might be interested in this discussion between Max Steinbeis (from the Verfassungsblog) and me, which was quite similar to the arguments exposed in this blogpost. While I was arguing that the Nobel Peace Prize for the EU came five decades too late as the Union today is not only a project to bring peace among peoples, but to build a supranational democracy among European citizens...

    ... Max argued that without the Union there could still be nationalist hatred and aggressiveness:

    Still, we agreed that what the Union needs is more democratization - either as an end in itself or as a means to preserve peace.

    Whether or not you consider that the EU has deserved the peace prize depends probably on whether you consider European politics as foreign politics of the member states (then the EU is in fact a remarkable achievement of peace-building) or as domestic politics of a supranational Union (which would mean that the Nobel Committee has, as you write, "boosted a political position that is largely domestic").

  2. The EU's a strange creature in that regard: at what point does it transform from a project that delivers peace to a community that is more about a civil space and a society than maintaining peace?

    Regarding democratisation, it is disappointing that there hasn't yet been a significant push from civil society (in a coordinated, cross-border sense) to democratise the EU institutions...