October 17th, 2012 | WEEKEND

What the Nobel Peace Prize Means for the EU

EU flag
EU flag Photo by Creative Commons.

This is the first piece in Kiki Ochieng’s new WEEKEND Blog column, “Beyond Polls & Borders.” Watch her introduction to her writing series and focus here.

Last Friday, in what some may have perceived as a curious choice, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union (EU) “for over six decades contribut[ing] to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” Despite the fact that the EU has been rumored to be a contender for the award in the past, some responded to the announcement with shock and confusion, as the union’s ongoing economic crisis has recently overshadowed its peacekeeping accomplishments.

Although the 27-member union has seen major political and ideological shifts among its member states due to the debt crisis, the EU still persists as one of the strongest multilateral organizations in the world. Founded after World War II as a model for economic and political unity, the EU has always held peace at the core of its mission. Because economic security and a single market facilitate interstate cooperation, the organization paved the way for countries that formerly considered themselves enemies (i.e. France and Germany) to form close alliances. Through its attempt to integrate Eastern European nations, the union has also helped to end the ethnically-motivated conflicts that plagued the region in the early 90s.

Still, while these political accomplishments are largely unquestioned, it’s worth asking how relevant the EU’s role remains as the continent now grapples with financial woes — and if there could be a political motivation behind the committee’s choice. At the award announcement ceremony in Oslo, Thorbjørn Jagland, the head of the Nobel committee, said: “the main message is that we need to keep in mind what we have achieved on this continent, and not let the continent go into disintegration again.” In what looks like a direct response to growing Euroscepticism, the Nobel committee appears to believe that the European Union is in need of a reminder of its triumphs and ongoing mission in order to reinvigorate itself. (Ironically, though, the prize has been presented in a country that is not itself a member of the Union.)

For the Norwegian Nobel Committee, at least, the EU’s benefits far outweigh its purported costs.

The Committee thus recognizes a larger truth about the Union, one Eurosceptics have come to ignore in their narrative about the last four years. In response to the award, French President François Hollande told the press that the EU must prove itself “worthy” of such recognition. He hit the nail on the head — the Nobel Committee is silently imploring the EU to remember what its true goals are. And that means recognizing that this award is not only for political leaders and bureaucrats; it is an award for the 500 million citizens of the European Union. It is a clarion call for patience and humility. It is a message asking us to realize that, despite the current hardship and painful institutional reform that many EU member states are facing, the ideals of the organization override these concerns in the long term.

The EU has helped significantly curb the over-zealous nationalism that has, in the not-so-distant past of the continent, led to devastating genocides and inequality. If it dissolves, we may see countries like Greece and Spain, already in the midst of downward spirals, succumb to failures in the rule of law and good governance. We may see nations like France, the originator of liberté, egalité and fraternité, no longer feeling held to a standard by their peers — and, as they desperately search for scapegoats on whom to blame their economic troubles in a time of global recession, turn on their immigrant communities or wealthier segments of society. We require mediators, in the form of EU structures, to help member states avoid the dangers of giving into extremist segments of their respective governments at times when their states are most vulnerable.

Rather than trying to “save” the euro or making a sardonic statement about the region’s financial difficulty through the prize money, the Nobel Committee has simply chosen to focus on the ways in which the European Union has positively contributed to European and general world vision as well as the ways in which it still has the potential to do so. As Jagland stated to the committee in his remarks, “this historic empathy still remains in the heads of so many Europeans.” Moments like this remind us that giving up on an organization that has shaped the peace processes, general enrichment and lives of millions for over half a century is simply not an option today.