Did the European Union deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

PUZZLED BY 2012 PEACE PRIZE, Moscow Times, 17 October 2012
By Peter Rutland

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union has brought both praise and puzzlement. The International Crisis Group lauded the EU as “one of the greatest conflict resolution mechanisms ever devised.” Others questioned why a body whose economic policies are associated with political turmoil and social unrest in Greece and Spain should be singled out for promoting peace.

The prize is awarded by a committee nominated by the Norwegian parliament. Critics were quick to argue that the decision was driven by purely political considerations, that is, by the desire to help the EU ride out the severe crisis facing its common currency. They also pointed to the hypocrisy of Norway praising a body that Norwegian citizens have twice voted against joining.

Europe is certainly a more peaceful place today than at any time in its past, but does the EU deserve all the credit for this? Defenders of the committee’s decision argue that the EU has ended the centuries-old proclivity of European states to invade each other. It’s true that most of Europe has enjoyed six decades without war. But it was the Cold War, not the Brussels bureaucracy, that created and maintained the peace in Europe.

The United States and the Soviet Union physically occupied the Continent in 1945, dismantled its armies and took responsibility for providing security in their respective halves of the continent. NATO and the Warsaw Pact were in place well before the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community was signed in 1957. In subsequent years, peace was preserved thanks to the deployment of nuclear weapons and the deterrence of Mutually Assured Destruction.

The EU certainly deserves credit for integrating the economies of its member countries and cultivating a spirit of joint endeavor so that when the Cold War ended in the late 1980s, a return to a 19th-century Europe of heavily militarized states threatening war with each other was inconceivable. But this was possible only because European states had already been stripped of their war-making functions for nearly half a century.

The enlargement of the EU into Eastern Europe over the past decade is also lauded for extending the zone of peace and stability into the former Soviet bloc. The prospect of EU entry was indeed important in tamping down nationalist conflict in Slovakia and Romania, both of which were home to Hungarian minorities eager to defend their cultural rights.

But these positive achievements have to be balanced against the military conflict in Yugoslavia during the late 1990s, which left more than 100,000 dead. Not only did the EU fail to prevent the conflict, but you could also argue that the precipitate recognition of the independence of Slovenia, Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina by Germany and others helped accelerate the violence.

From 1991 to 1995, it was the EU and United Nations that played the leading role in efforts to end the fighting. But they failed in that task, showing the structural inability of the EU to act decisively to bring about peace. This culminated in the Srebrenica massacre in July 1995, when 7,000 men and boys died at the hands of Serbian forces. It was only the subsequent U.S.-led NATO intervention that ended the fighting and imposed a peace that has held to the present. A similar cycle played out in Kosovo over the next four years, which festered until NATO military action brought closure in 1999.

The EU has also failed to bring about a peaceful resolution to the secessionist conflicts in Moldova, Azerbaijan and Georgia. True, these conflicts present a daunting challenge for peacemakers, whose task is complicated by Russia’s heavy-handed presence in these regions. But the Moldova conflict is far from intractable, and the EU’s failure to engineer a peace in this small, impoverished country is disappointing. Likewise, the EU accepted the divided island of Cyprus as a member state, much to Turkey’s annoyance. One can only assume that places like Moldova and Cyprus are not on Oslo’s radar screen.

In awarding the peace prize to the EU, the Norwegian Nobel committee is effectively erasing the Yugoslav wars and the post-Soviet conflicts from the historical record. The granting of the prize to the EU may be good politics, but it is bad history.


3 thoughts on “Did the European Union deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

  1. Don’t agree with you, despite (and partially because of) the obvious exceptions you point out. I think there are three crucial dimensions here as to why the EU thoroughly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.

    The first is that although wider American and Cold War-led security agreements and arrangements (NATO, etc.) were obviously important, the EEC represented something even more powerful historically — deepened economic interdependence linked with the joint promotion of prosperity. This made it increasingly clear over time that economic integration made war itself, not just intra-European war, counterproductive and unthinkable for European states. Even General de Gaulle’s Europe des États recognized this evolution, in the wider context of critiquing the Cold War and NATO and emphasizing decolonization and progressive withdrawal from foreign military adventures!

    This transformation of course dovetailed with technological changes such as the move from hierarchically structured Second Industrial Revolution economies (represented by the shift from the ECSC, which was essentially about these firms and technologies, to the EEC in the 1950s) to more decentralized, marketized economic structures — “embedded liberalism” (Ruggie 1982). Economics, and the opportunities for political, social and economic actors to entrench a more liberal market model — even in the so-called “coordinated [or relatively corporatist] market economies” (I think the VoC advocates miss the overall shift even in these economies) — across borders became the normal and indeed hegemonic way of doing things in political behavior and policy practice in Europe, thanks to the EU.

    The second is that the rather tortuous decision-making structure of the EEC and later EC and EU, around endless meetings, incrementalism, and multi-level negotiations, also paradoxically embedded a complex but increasingly cooperative political process that drew previously more state-centric politics into a wider and more inclusive bargaining framework. The EU institutionalized this process.

    And third, the combination of the first two plus the wider security considerations you mention turned what were essentially states based on military wariness vis-à-vis each other (after centuries of war) into “civilian states” (Sheehan, James J. [2008] Where Have All the Soldiers Gone? The Transformation of Modern Europe [Boston: Houghton Mifflin)]). Indeed, the reluctance of the EU to get involved in the post-Yugoslavia conflicts was ironically a good example of their reluctance to stray from peaceful, civilian security policies and to risk war. And eventually, the absorbtion of most post-Soviet and post-Yugoslav states into the EU after those conflicts had wound down is an excellent example of how those sorts of conflicts are likely to be prevented in the future — by, again, institutionalizing their integration into a wider, peace-oriented political framework.

  2. This whole issue reminds me of UN Secretary, Kofi Annan’s winning of Nobel Peace prize a few years ago. It is extremely controversial when a political personality, or a political organization of such international stature (like UNO or EU) are bestowed with Peace Prize. Without disregarding the organizing skill that EU has shown and the deliberative mode of interaction it generated among the major European states. this announcement only highlights the fact that perception of Europe, even to Europe is still confined to Western Europe. The failures of EU or its skepticism in conflict resolutions in East Europe , can therefore be overlooked while the highest acclaim for world peace is being bestowed on EU.

  3. In his blog entry, Peter mentions nuclear weapons.Perhaps their role should be emphasized more. Both in the memoirs of Khrushchev and in those of his son, there are scenes of the top brass bragging to the General Secretary about their ability to reach La Manche in two weeks, or the Pyrenees in three. In each case, the ruler is reported to have rejected the proposed adventure by reminding his generals of nuclear weapons.

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