international analysis and commentary

Caught between history and aspirations: the EU’s Nobel Prize


The Nobel Peace Prize is an opportunity for the EU to better link its past and future. The achievements of European integration have been aptly summarized in the communiqué of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. In the early days of the post-Second World War period, the EU was able to reconcile France and Germany, two countries that had been at war with each other three times in seventy years. Two historical enemies were turned into friends and collaborative partners. Resorting to war became unthinkable among the six founding countries of the EU (France, Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries). The experiment was so successful that the EU club was joined by several more countries. Many of the 27 countries that are now members of the EU used to be ruled by autocrats (Greece, Portugal and Spain until the mid 1970s, the Central and Eastern European countries until the late 1980s). They had to become fully fledged democratic countries before entering the EU and Brussels closely followed and encouraged their democratic path, through the extensive use of conditionality and forms of socialization.

Over the past two years the eurozone crisis has sapped a great amount of political and economic energy, and this has certainly resulted in a more introverted EU. There is no denying that even in its immediate neighborhood the Union’s “soft power” has decreased. We can then interpret the Nobel Peace Prize as a salutary warning against the temptation to take for granted or even forget the EU’s efforts to turn its back to the previous history of nationalism in Europe and unveil a genuine new way to interpret and conduct international relations. Sure, the EU is currently underperforming in both political and economic terms, but it is important to remind ourselves that it was not the euro that originated the global financial and economic crisis, although the common currency’s weaknesses have been exposed. Furthermore, its members have demonstrated the capacity to meet extraordinary challenges by making controversial decisions – like the call to launch the Tobin tax, although through the mechanism of reinforced cooperation, meaning that only some EU countries are bound by that measure.

In summary, for all its limitations, the EU is still an unrivaled political and institutional experiment to bring about peace and reconciliation, as well as democracy and respect for human rights. Therefore, European integration needs not only to proceed, but to be strengthened, to benefit its citizens, as well as its candidate countries and more distant aspirants. Much has been achieved by the EU in getting those countries closer to the EU, and it would be an extraordinary mistake to stop this process before it has fully brought all its advantages.

There is thus an internal and an external dimension to the current predicament. Let us imagine if nationalist thinking and lack of solidarity were to truly prevail across Europe. What would the Greek problem look like  from outside the EU? And would Greece be tempted to see itself fully as part of the Balkan region? Or, how would we see the Western Balkans (now in the grey area of rather advanced membership negotiations), if the region were no longer tied to EU-led conditionality? What would happen to a country like Bosnia and Herzegovina, struggling to go beyond the post-Dayton constitutional design with the EU’s support? The same applies to Serbia and Kosovo, where the remaining serious difficulties should not overshadow the enormous progress registered since 1999.

Even beyond the countries that are already committed to a specific path negotiated with the EU, there is a legitimate question to be asked about Turkey: how are we to assess the backtracking on the respect for human rights and freedom which has coincided with the slowing down of its accession process? And again, in historical perspective, it is worth recalling that when people took to the streets in Kiev, Tbilisi and Minsk asking for freedom and democracy in the early 2000s, they were waving EU flags. Many of them may be partly disillusioned today, but a peaceful and integrated Europe is still a point of reference and a symbol of fundamental political values.

Therefore, it seems that the Nobel Committee has made its choice in order to address different audiences. The message to the EU citizens can thus be summarized: for all your current problems, do not forget your achievements and continue on the path of integration. The message to the countries outside the EU is: while specific conditions may differ over time, the option of regional integration and reconciliation embodied by European integration has so far proved the best recipe for peace.

We can be proud of the EU’s history and there is much to celebrate; but even more importantly, the goals and ideals that inspired the founding fathers of European integration can take us farther on the road to a better functioning Union, inside and in its relations with other countries and international organizations. As we continue on this difficult path, the rest of the world will continue to watch with genuine interest.