Should the European Union have won the Nobel Peace Prize?

Within a day of the award being announced, I was hearing jokes about the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize going to the European Union.  Could they use the prize money to bail out Greece?  How would they stop arguing long enough to choose someone to accept the prize on their behalf?  And the killer, an acceptance speech that begins:

Firstly, I would like to thank Adolf Hitler, without which none of this would have been possible.

The Nobel Peace Prize is often contentious.  For every Aung San Suu Kyi or Desmond Tutu, there is a Henry Kissinger or Yasser Arafat.  The Committee often uses the prize to try to tweak current events, because its prestige lends clout to the recipient – Jose Ramos-Horta, for instance, became much more widely recognized as a result of winning the prize, and this probably helped the cause of East Timorese independence.  But the risk is that it’s hard to pick winners before they have done anything: Barack Obama got the prize for not being George W. Bush.

The other Nobel Prizes are always awarded for achievement, not aspiration, sometimes many years after the original research was done.  In this case, they have treated the Peace Prize as they do the scientific and literary prizes, and rewarded the EU for past achievement, rather than present or future aspirations.

You can see the point. After the devastation of World War II, it was a visionary decision by a small group of politicians, amongst them the Frenchmen Robert Schuman (1886-1963) and Jean Monnet (1888-1979) and the German Konrad Adenauer (1876-1967), to reach across the divisions of the past to take the first steps towards a unified Europe.  The original 6 signatories to the Treaty of Rome (1957) were Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg (Benelux).

Map of the Treaty of Verdun

The Treaty of Verdun (843) divided Charlemagne’s Empire into 3 parts

The original European Common Market of 6 nations covered pretty much the same territory as the empire of Charlemagne (742-814), 1200 years earlier.  Charlemagne’s empire only lasted 2 generations.  It was already being nibbled away at the edges when, in 843, his 3 grandsons divided it amongst themselves at the Treaty of Verdun.  Louis the German got East Francia, the lands east of the Rhine covering much of the territory that eventually (1870) became Germany.  Charles the Bald got West Francia, containing much of what became France.

The eldest grandson, Lothair, took the title of Emperor, and Middle Francia, a territory that ran from what re now the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg (Benelux), across Alsace-Lorraine (the name Lorraine is a corruption of Lotharingia), down into Provence, through the Jura into Switzerland and across the Alps into North Italy.

This long strip of territory, not surprisingly, wasn’t viable as a single state, and soon fragmented into independent statelets, which flourished without any central control.  The wealthiest, most independent minded cities in Western Europe were those of North Italy and the Benelux region, variously known, depending on period, as Flanders or Burgundy or the Low Counties.  Lothair’s territory included Charlemagne’s old capital, Aachen, but it’s telling that the city has a second, French name – Aix-la-Chapelle – for Middle Francia marked a cultural boundary whose memory lingers on.  It is the frontier between the French and German languages, where amalgams exist – Dutch, Alsatian, Luxembourgish, Swiss-Deutsch….

The states and cities flourished – when there was peace.  In the best of times, they acted as a buffer zone between France and the Imperial lands; in the worst of times, they became the  territory across which French and Imperial (later German) armies slogged it out, wealthy, strategic, divided and militarily weak.

The institutional centres of the European Union are strung out along Lothair’s strip of territory today: the European Commission is in Brussels, the European Parliament in Strasbourg, the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.  Other global institutions are also clustered here too, such as the International Court of Justice in The Hague and the International Labor Organization in Geneva.

River Crossing on the way to Verdun

Another perspective on Verdun: River Crossing on the way to the battle, probably 1917

The EU has been a great peace maker.  There has been no conflict between France and Germany since 1945, whereas conflicts erupted every generation or so beforehand: 1793-1815, 1870-1, 1914-19, 1939-45.  The EU has also facilitated democratic change: Spain and Portugal both entered the EU only after the deaths of the dictators Franco and Salazar.  Their citizens wanted to the benefits of EU membership and chose democracy at least in part because it was a condition of entry.  Similarly Greece only joined after the Colonels departed, in 1981.  And the EU, as a supranational organization, has created a mechanism for national minorities to emerge from the resentful shadows: from Northern Ireland to Corsica to the Basque country, historical grievances remain, but are expressed far less violently than before.  When all else fails, become a member of the European Parliament, like Ian Paisley.

The problem is: just how big is Europe?  and just how unified?  In retrospect, the idea of a single currency, without a single political will to decide on economic policy, was a mistake.

Charlemagne’s empire was based on the imperative of constant warfare and constant expansion.  To pay his army, he needed a constant supply of lands and treasure, which came from the army’s conquests.  This sort of expansion couldn’t last forever, and the whole edifice broke into pieces within 2 generations of his death.

The EU’s expansion has been much more benign – but it’s hard not to think that it, too, has reached – maybe overreached – its limits, and could easily implode.

Nobel Prizes only go to the living.  Some great discoveries, such as plate tectonics, are not recognized for what they are before their discoverers die, and there are no posthumous awards.  The visionary men of the 1950s, who first dared to reach across that bitter, bloody land of Middle Francia in search of peaceable union, undoubtedly deserved the Nobel Peace Prize.  But nobody thought of it at the time – and it’s rather too late now.

This time last year:

Occupying Wall Street and Boundary Street, 14 October 2011

6 responses to “Should the European Union have won the Nobel Peace Prize?

  1. Fascinating post… setting the EU in relation to the past and present…

  2. Yes, I hadn’t thought about the relevance of the tri-partite Carolingian split before, but you make a convincing case. And clearly, the EU has represented an astonishing burial of hatchets after many centuries of warfare within Europe.
    I’m not quite so sure about the benefits of the EU to ethnic and cultural minorities, though. We have just come back from Barcelona where the Catalans are very much unhappy about their lot. The Basques have more independence, including financial independence, within Spain. Catalunya is bigger and getting more assertive about wanting more independence too. In September there was a demonstration of 1.5 million Catalans, or so we were assured by multiple informants. Huge, just huge. There were Catalan flags everywhere, hanging off the balconies of almost every other flat, many of them with the addition of the blue star for an independent Catalunya. Madrid is unlikely to offer them a referendum, though, on the Scottish model.
    And has peace in Northern Ireland and limited autonomy for Wales and Scotland and the Basques really got anything to do with the the EU?

  3. Hi Sally. I’d argue that Welsh and Scottish devolution have occurred without much EU involvement, but that Basque nationalism has benefited from the EU. There are Basques on both sides of the French/Spanish border, and the EU means easier movement of people across that border, so Biarritz and Bilbao can talk to each other. I’m not sure about Northern Ireland – I suspect other cross border traffic, like getting TV signals from Dublin, might be equally important.

  4. Marion, Fascinating, thank you! & I laughed at Barack getting the NP for not being George W. Bush! Don’t you think he deserved it for that? Sarah

  5. Thanks Sarah. I think the Barack Obama award was pretty foolish really. It was embarrassingly premature, and I doubt he would get it now, post-drones.

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