international analysis and commentary

Celebrating peace in Europe: that was then, this is now


There was much excitement in Brussels last week when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the EU. Not only did I as a European citizen feel that all my efforts to save the world these twenty plus years past have been finally recognized but as EU Commission President Manuel Barroso said, “…it is justified to see its [EU] work for peace recognized”. Let’s face it: this highly political award said more about Norwegian domestic politics and the Brussels influence machine than the EU, but there is no reason to deny the contribution of the Union to peace and security in Europe these six decades past.  “Not bad, now don’t fall apart” seemed to be the message of the awarding committee. 

The prize did something else; it also highlighted the contrast between the EU’s security ambitions and its lamentable performance. Last week I chaired a big meeting in Amsterdam to discuss the future of armed forces. A senior EU official talked excitedly about the great work the Union was doing in the field of the Common Foreign and Security Policy, particularly in the Sahel. He typified the EU’s security problem, particularly that of the High Representative, Baroness Ashton, and her team at the European External Action Service; talk big, deliver little and then call it a huge success. For example, some sixty or so EU officials have been dispatched to the Sahel when in fact sixty helicopters would have been more useful. What the Nobel Prize did not mention was that the EU is great at planning but awful at doing: in this respect there is a recurring tendency by the elites to avoid embarrassing each other with facts.

Part of the problem is Baroness Ashton herself. She simply lacks the ambition to make best use of existing EU structures under the Lisbon Treaty. During discussions to send in an EU force to provide humanitarian assistance as the battle for Misrata was unfolding in Libya, she allegedly seemed not to know that the EU had “battle groups” and spent much time objecting to the name. In a recent speech she said that her criterion for intervening in a crisis was whether she had any assets in her “toolbox”. If she had she might, if she had not she would not. Is that the sum total of EU ambition after so many years of CFSP and its military surrogate the European/Common Security and Defence Policy?

Insiders like to say that CSDP is young. No, it is not. It has been around since 1991 and the same insiders will also tell you that they stopped using capability targets back in 2008 because member-state performance was so poor. It has got worse since.

Looking at Europe from a US perspective can help clarify the problem. Notwithstanding the American tendency to exaggerate risks, the world they are considering is indeed big and dangerous with threats ranging from anti-state Islamists both within and on Europe’s borders, cyber-threats, proliferation and the possibility of systemic state conflict drive by hyper-competition between states legitimized not by democracy but by economic growth. Any credible European role in managing such dangerous change will require a fundamental and radical restructuring of all of Europe’s civilian and military security apparatus. Instead, all that emerges from the EU is endless talk and communiqués heralding mostly bureaucratic adjustments as historic strategic breakthroughs.

Even within Europe the EU has been a crisis management vacuum these two years past. Leadership has been notable by its absence. Indeed, whether the euro survives or fails all Europeans will have to act together to ease the pending social and humanitarian crisis on Europe’s periphery.  

Instead of indulging in self-congratulation, then, a small dose of realism should be administered. One cannot prove whether or not it was the EU that prevented systemic conflict in Europe these sixty years past, although I fully acknowledge the role of the Union as a contributing factor. The horror of World War Two alone was a powerful incentive for most European states. And, for EU officials and pro-integration advocates to use the Peace Prize to justify the need for the further and rapid (undemocratic?) concentration of power in few hands seems a little self-serving to say the least.

In that light Thorbjoern Jagland, the Nobel committee president, might have been advised to add a rejoinder to the award; the concentration of power in the hands of too few Europeans has never ended well and is unlikely to do so again.

The Nobel Peace Prize to Europe’s past achievements is an honor indeed, but that was then and this is now.