[Skip to Content]

12 October 2012

EU wins Nobel peace prize

EU wins Nobel peace prize

The European Union (EU) has been announced as the latest recipient of the Nobel peace prize for its work to promote and maintain peace in Europe following the Second World War. The Nobel Committee said the EU had helped transform Europe "from a continent of war to a continent of peace."

The prize is awarded each year, usually to an individual, who: "shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

Reacting to the announcement, President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barroso, and President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, issued a joint statement: "At its origins the European Union brought together nations emerging from the ruins of devastating World Wars – which originated on this continent – and united them in a project for peace. Over the last sixty years, the European Union has reunified a continent split by the Cold War around values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights." Although, it could equally be argued that the award should have been given to the Marshall Plan or the EEC – or indeed NATO which is more directly credited with securing peace.

Previous winners have also attracted controversy, with President Obama's award in 2009 considered by many as premature, given he had at the time only recently taken office. Critics of the EU, including UKIP leader, Nigel Farage, denounced the announcement. He said: "rather than bring peace and harmony, the EU will cause insurgency and violence."

At a time when the EU is going through unprecedented economic crises and the imposition of austerity measures in Greece has led to riots, it is easy to see why many do not see the EU as a beacon of peace. There are also aspects of the EU's history which are hard to reconcile with this new mantel, in particular its slow response to events in the former republics of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s.
The Catholic Church and other Christian movements, such as Solidarity, played a key role in bringing an end to the Cold War, while the EU helped to form the reunification of Europe afterwards.

However, it is also easy to overlook the remarkable period of peace that the Europe has enjoyed over the past 60 years since the first parts of what we now call the EU were put in place. Twice in the first half of the twentieth century, the powers of Europe found themselves, out of choice or necessity, in terrible times of conflict where millions of lives were lost. Robert Schuman, one of the architects of the original European Economic Community, was determined that the community of peoples would be founded on basic Christian values of freedom, equality, solidarity and peace.

Traditionally three factors are considered to promote and secure peace, and they are all either prerequisites of membership or facilitated through the EU. That is why, despite the apparent contradictions and almost comical timing, the awarding of the Nobel peace prize to the EU deserves at least some consideration before being dismissed as the actions of a Nordic committee intent on defining itself into irrelevance.

The three factors that are considered to be the principle causes of peace are democratic politics, economic trade, and an alliance of nations. One of the main requirements of countries wanting to join the EU is a clear record of democratic governance and a commitment to human rights. The initial purpose of the EU was to facilitate trade, albeit that this has been supplemented by other more political aims in recent years. Finally, the EU is by its very composition an alliance of nations.

The combination of these three features mean that the remarkable peace experienced in most of Europe owes at least something to the establishment and operation of the EU or what went before it. It is hard to speculate whether without the union but with democratic politics and active trade the same degree of stability would have resulted. It is also hard, however, to see whether the countries in the EU would have worked so hard to establish trade practices in the absence of some common framework to act within.

By its very nature, the absence of war is hard to account for, but while the EU divides opinion there is no prospect at present of any member countries going to war over it. When multinational bodies go wrong, as happened with the League of Nations between the two world wars they have the opposite effect. In that situation the body which was established to promote peace became one of the causes of the second and more brutal world war.

The EU has provided a space where countries can compete and argue and air their disagreements. It is not perfect, and its future is not secure or even necessarily wholly desired. But while there may still be conflict within Europe for the most part it takes the form of words and not warfare.