Why the European Union Deserves the Nobel Peace Prize

It may be struggling now, but nobody can deny Europe its successes.


Tobias Schwarz/Reuters

It did not take long for the howls of derision to begin after the Nobel Foundation awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. A sneering tone was detectable across Twitter and even in the pages of fair-minded magazines like Foreign Policy, in which Daniel W. Drezner labeled the EU victory "humorous" and an award for "the greatest hits of the past." The tone was dismissive, odious, and repugnant. It reflects a total failure to recognize and appreciate the historic accomplishments of the European Union -- but also the work it continues to do to eliminate economic barriers and foster international and interethnic cooperation, on a continent that was for centuries stuck in a cycle of perpetual war.

Consider that in the time between the conclusion of the American Civil War -- the last occasion of ground combat on U.S. soil -- and the signing of the 1951 agreement to forge the EU's predecessor, the European Coal and Steel Community, the peoples of Europe endured years of bloody conflict, some of it just but mostly needless. The list includes not just the two world wars and the tragedy of the Holocaust, but clashes between France and Prussia, Prussia and Austria, Russia and Turkey, Turkey and Greece, as well as innumerable skirmishes in the Balkans.

It is all the more remarkable that relationships as historically polarized as the ones between France and Germany, or Germany and the United Kingdom, have been able to organize a new continental order based upon a single common market, the cornerstones of which are the free movement of people, goods, services, and capital. Notable, too, is the evolution of the European Union from a commercial endeavor into a political enterprise with elected representatives from all member states making up a transcontinental parliament.

The integration of new member states into these structures is also an astonishing feat. Greece, followed by Spain and Portugal, gained admission in the 1980s after their governments moved away from fascism, insularity, and dictatorship. The accession of the nations of Eastern Europe, the processes for which began only a few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was indispensable in terms of keeping those countries on democratic and capitalistic paths. Next year, Croatia will follow Slovenia as one of the first former Yugoslav republics to join the union. With any luck, in the future the European Union may be able to assimilate Serbia alongside an independent and sovereign Kosovo.

The European Union, in the spirit of multilaterism, should also be commended for the work it does outside its borders in the form of international aid. The EU accounted for around half of the world's aid last year providing some €53.1 billion ($68.8 billion). The European Commission alone -- union's executive branch -- spent €11.3 billion ($14.6 billion), making it the largest multilateral donor in the world and the second-largest bilateral giver, after the United States. The largest beneficiary of funds is sub-Saharan Africa, with the money spent on education, healthcare, and clean water, as well as post-emergency relief and reconstruction.

Of course, the European project has faltered -- the creation of the Euro and a monetary union without fiscal union was a mistake. Yet even in this case, such deeds were done in pursuit of the ideal of a more united and harmonious continent. Helmut Kohl, who put a great deal of weight behind the implementation of the single currency, was willing for Germany to sacrifice its strong and stable Deutschmark for the sake of the Euro and weaken his country's economic independence in order to join the family of nations and reassure France and others that a reunified Germany would not seek to be the dominant power in post-Soviet Europe. The idea was flawed but the sentiment behind it was a decent and noble one.

As the European project has taken off, particularly in the last 40 years or so, the Nobel Peace Prize has been granted to laureates whose credentials as peacemakers are a matter of debate. Henry Kissinger was awarded the prize in 1973 for a peace treaty that did not hold, and his list of offenses against concord and stability in places like Chile and the Soviet Union amongst others is disgracefully long. When Mother Teresa accepted her award in 1979, she proclaimed, "the greatest destroyer of peace today is abortion." Even today, Barack Obama's receipt of the Nobel before he'd even signed a single treaty wound up devaluing the award.

The timing of this year's award to the EU is nakedly political. It is intended partly as an act of reassurance, as the European Union, and especially the core monetary union, suffers through a sovereign debt crisis. The unemployment rate in the Eurozone hit 11.4 percent in August, topping out as high as 25 percent in Greece and Spain. For young people, the problem is even worse and the next couple of years carry a projected GDP growth forecast of just 1.0 percent for 2013.

But that doesn't make the award any less right or just, for present difficulties do not obscure or negate the idea that there is no single institution more responsible for economic prosperity and political harmony in postwar Europe than the European Union. Indeed, it is high time the European Union was celebrated for its achievements in this regard. This award not only bestows legitimacy upon Europe and the European project, but it also goes some way to restoring the status of Nobel Peace Prize, repeatedly besmirched and degraded by its misattribution. In spite of the snarky protestations, I hope it is not too novel an idea to wish that the Nobel Peace Prize might be actually awarded to a person or organization that has, in the words of Alfred Nobel, "done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations and the promotion of peace."