The Nobel Peace Prize for 2012 has been awarded to the European Union because it has “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”. Coming as this does in the midst of a full-fledged European economic crisis — one with political overtones, as the right-wing riots in Athens accompanying the visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel to that city show — the award has been, fairly predictably, attacked. This ranges from the infuriated, from Eurosceptic British tabloids — The Sun’s headline was “EU have got to be joking”, and the Daily Mail went with “Nobel Peace Prize for Idiocy” — to the amused. More than one commentator pointed out that at least Europe did not win the Nobel Prize for economics; also common was the joke that Europe could do with the $1.4 million prize money. One post on Twitter even suggested that the European Central Bank permit the Nobel to be used as collateral against sovereign borrowing.
In truth, the bemusement with which the prize has been greeted only underlines the truth in the prize committee’s citation. “The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest,” the citation admits; but it goes on to say the committee “wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU’s most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights.” In the seven decades since Europe pushed the world into war, the ideals of the European Union have made the prospect of another war in that bloodstained continent unthinkable, even as relations between its nation-states are as poor as they have been at any point in those decades. Its achievements are now taken for granted, the Franco-German solidity at its centre surviving disagreements and domestic political changes. And, as with all such things that are taken for granted, when this very real accomplishment is pointed out, it is likely to be greeted with disbelief. The funnier the jokes, the truer the citation.
Of course, the award furthers the political agenda of its givers. This is a perennial truth with the Nobel Peace Prize, handed out by a committee of Norwegian parliamentarians. (At least one angry British columnist pointed this out, saying that the prize existed basically “to troll right-wingers.”) In this case, not only does it remind a fractious Union of how indispensable it has been, but it serves a very specific domestic agenda, too. The award committee is dominated by left-leaning MPs, some of whom have worked in past campaigns to get Norway to assent to EU membership. The oil-rich, isolationist country has three times rejected membership — and this award is seen domestically as the politicians’ rebuke to “no” voters.
Yet, agenda and amusement apart, it is also undeniable that the European Union is perhaps the closest awardee in years to the spirit of Alfred Nobel’s original bequest — that the honour go to whoever or whatever has 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.” The Union is a giant fraternity of nations; its members have no armies pointed at each other; and its institutions, when seen in the sweep of history, are in effect peace congresses. As the continent struggles to pay the price required to keep its unity intact, the Nobel committee has reminded its leaders and its people of exactly what is at stake.