Friday’s announcement that the European Union (EU) had won the Nobel Peace Prize elicited widespread surprise and mirth. Had the committee actually awarded the prize to the world’s reigning economic basket case? How will the union divide its $1.2 million winnings—by sending a quarter-cent check to each of its five hundred million inhabitants?
In fact, the award is richly deserved. Since World War II, few developments have done more than European integration to advance the cause of world peace. In bestowing this year’s prize on the EU, the Norwegian Nobel Committee was—like Hollywood’s Oscars—giving belated recognition to an oft-overlooked actor or director for a lifetime’s worth of achievement.
We have become so accustomed to a unified, free, and peaceful Europe that we forget what an extraordinary historical triumph it represents. This is a continent soaked in centuries of blood, from the Thirty Years War to the two World Wars of the twentieth century, which together took the lives of more than sixty million.
The EU’s contribution to world peace is three-fold. First the union has nurtured an enduring reconciliation between France and Germany. Between 1870 and 1945 the two adversaries fought three wars—but war between the two is now unthinkable. In recent decades, the former mortal enemies have cooperated as partners, and motors, in European integration. This has been possible thanks to the vision of Jean Monnet, who persuaded French foreign minister Robert Schuman in May 1950 to propose a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), designed to turn the raw materials of war into instruments of joint prosperity and enduring peace. The ECSC gave birth to the European Economic Community (EEC), with the signature of the Treaty of Rome in 1957; then a unified common market, in the Single European Act of 1987; and eventually the European Union, with the signature of the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. The driving force behind all these developments was a peaceful Franco-German “axis” that married French diplomatic virtuosity to German economic muscle.
Europe’s second historic accomplishment was to gradually expand the boundaries of this zone of peace and prosperity, by providing an incentive for formerly authoritarian or communist countries to consolidate fragile democracies and promote the rule of law. This effort began in the 1980s, with the EEC’s Mediterranean enlargement, which brought Greece, Spain, and Portugal into the fold. After the Cold War suddenly ended, the new Eastern European states found the pull and promise of a Europe “whole and free” to be irresistible. Indeed, between 1990 and 2012, the EU expanded from thirteen members to twenty-seven, with three states of the formerly volatile Balkans (Serbia, Croatia and Monetenegro) waiting in the wings. Beyond commiting itself to democracy and human rights, each aspirant has been required to accept the union’s acquis communautaire—or the accumulated body of EU laws and regulations. Although the EU has failed to admit the Muslim-majority country of Turkey—tarnishing its own image—the overall result has been an expanding zone of peace and (notwithstanding current difficulties) relative prosperity unequalled in any other region of the world.
Europe’s third, and continuing, contribution has been in serving as both a model of and force for peace on the global stage. We live, of course, in a world of proliferating regional and subregional organizations. And regional integration will inevitably take different forms reflecting local contexts, as we see in bodies from the African Union (AU) to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN). But the European Union remains the gold standard, providing a blueprint for how sovereign states can overcome historical enmities and cultural and ethnic differences to pursue a common destiny, without forsaking their national identities. Imagine what East Asia might look like were China, Japan, and the two Koreas one day able to achieve their own version of Franco-German reconciliation.
But the EU is not simply an exemplar of peace, but increasingly a peace-maker. Over the past decade, the EU has assisted with peacekeeping missions in seventeen countries, from Indonesia to Somalia. Thanks to the Lisbon Treaty, the EU now boasts a president (of the European Council), and a foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, who play an increasingly visible role on the world stage—admittedly, to the degree permitted by Europe’s big powers (UK, France, and Germany). In the ongoing debate over Iran’s nuclear program, the European Union has served as an invaluable ally to the United States. In Somalia, the EU delegations were also able to successfully moderate between the United States and other members of the International Contact Group in Somalia who resented the U.S.-led global “war on terror.” Moreover, the EU has been a powerful lobby for human rights worldwide—championing the rights of people from the Roma ethnicity in France to the persecuted Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar¾and its size increases the force of its words.
The EU’s Nobel, in sum, is richly deserved.
But here’s the worrisome thing about “lifetime achievement” awards. They’re typically given to those who are—let’s not sugar coat it—in their sunset years, staring mortality in the face. The big question for the EU is whether there’s any life in the old actor yet.
The signs don’t bode well. Despite the best efforts of the European Central Bank, the eurozone crisis persists. The continent also faces a demographic crisis, as fewer workers support an expanding population of pensioners. Defense spending has been slashed in most countries, even Great Britain. Meanwhile, European politics is being renationalized, portending a shift of power from Brussels back toward capitals, consistent with de Gaulle’s old vision of a Europe des patries. In many countries, resurgent nationalism has encouraged ugly, neo-fascist movements that target immigrant communities. And unlike the postwar period when the United States provided immense support for European economic growth that served as a foundation for European prosperity and subsequent integration, the European Union today must sink or swim on its own.
Today the European Union faces a severe test of its coherence and vitality to act as a force for peace as nationalist sentiment seethes, and as resentment between its rich members and the periphery grows. In the words of the Nobel committee, “the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.” It is no secret that Nobel peace prizes often come with an agenda, and the Nobel committee clearly made its selection as a reminder of Europe’s bloody past and the dangers of European nationalism.