EU Nobel Peace prize: check the small print

By Luis Martí, former World Bank director | Only occasionally does the Nobel Prize for Peace meet world approval.

True, quite a few times–certainly when war was raging–the Norwegian Committee thought it wiser to suspend the award. Sometimes, however, the Committee threw prudence overboard and adopted surprising decisions apparently for lack of better, well-founded candidacies in that particular year. Maybe they were intended as an open gesture to give encouragement to some public figure or  to initiatives in favour of international understanding, but still they were seen as controversial.

There are many examples. Joint awards to signatories of peace treaties that never–so far–brought peace in their wake, or president Obama’s still unexplainable award–“stunning surprise,” wrote the The New York Times–or the award to Al Gore and his panel on climate change–an interesting project but far removed from the conflict-ending objectives of the Prize–, or institutions clearly associated with the promotion of peace but whose effectiveness is generally disputed, as the United Nations (and its general secretary) or the International Atomic Energy Agency (and its director general).

So, it now was the turn of the European Union. The Norwegian Committee realised that over seventy years without a war between the core countries of Europe was such a critical development that it should deserve a particular distinction.

Everyone knows, and the Committee makes the point in its press release, that during the seventy years prior to 1940, the central powers of Europe went to war three times and twice even managed to pull into the fray much of the rest of the world, so that their wars tragically became World Wars. The attribution of the achievement to the European Union is of course an exercise in simplification, because geopolitical factors during several decades undoubtedly played a key role, too, in the intra-European rapprochements.

But it is admittedly a way to recognise that Europeans themselves finally moved in unison together and hit on some common ground to create an atmosphere where resort to war seems irrelevant.

The founding fathers had the vision and the courage to set off a political process that has proved unstoppable. They also laid an institutional cornerstone, the European Coal and Steel Community (1951), five years before the signature of the Treaty of Rome, and many other European politicians have over the years followed in their wake and kept alive the dynamics of building upon a common European interest–at times under the gruelling and exasperating formula of “two steps forward, one backward”.

As in the case of other well-deservedly awarded candidates, such as the Red Cross or to Medecins sans Frontières, the Norwegian Committee has based its decision on undisputed facts on the ground. The European Union is a process that yields results.

Yet, it was not necessary to bet on the Union proving itself in some misty future. A bit baffling, therefore, that the chairman of the Committee felt obliged to make a statement comparing this year’s award to the prize given to the United Nations a few years ago.

A couple of comments may be in order.

That the European Union has been a cohesive factor for its members does not mean that it can prove equally effective as a forum to deal with any history-rooted conflicts–in particular, between non-core countries.

The Norwegian Committee mentions as a praiseworthy achievement the solution of ethnically-based national conflicts within the Union, and gives positive encouragement to the opening of its door to Croatia, Serbia, and Montenegro.

Well, Croatia is due for full membership as from July 1, 2013, and in their statement after the Croatian referendum a few months ago, Barroso and Van Rompuy did not hesitate to say that this sent a ”a clear signal to the whole region of South-eastern Europe,” obviously addressing the remaining countries–Bosnia-Herzegovina, FYROM, Albania, and maybe Kosovo.

In the view of their leaders, therefore, the Union would willing to go beyond its current (almost unmanageable) level of membership and incorporate nothing less than the whole Balkan, one of the most conflict-prone regions in the history of Europe.

Well, the Union should not be a closed shop. But still, quite an audacious step. One can be forgiven for expressing doubt that regional states would drop their historic grievances for good the moment they would sit together around the x-member table in Brussels. The intricacies of Balkan politics may weigh heavily on the common agenda, and recent experience, before and during the armed conflicts just twenty years ago, regrettably shows that core member countries as well as the Union itself proved absolutely incapable of playing a restraining or constructive role.

The experience presumably gathered on ethnic conflicts over the years, that the Norwegian Committee generously attributes to the European Union, was ineffective when put to the Balkan test. The truth of the matter is that it was only the US resolve to step into the conflict and later, the tireless efforts of a US-backed diplomat  (Holbrooke), that finally were able to keep things under control and bring the parties to a tenuous, if still lasting peace.

With its sights on a more distant future, the Committee also throws its moral weight behind future lines of action that might desirably include Turkey. A long shot, indeed. This country presents its own set of problems, some of them stemming from its relations to current members, and it is very unlikely that any progress can be expected for years. The Committee’s advice on this issue was probably unwarranted.

The Committee also makes a passing reference in their press release to current problems in the Union, although they wisely keep clear of mentioning that sub-set of the Union called the euro zone.

But the award might also be seen–my guess–as an indirect prompting to the eurozone leaders that are grappling with several asymmetric crises at the same time, a kind of shock that their predecessors in the 90s did not believe was worth of particular treatment but is now generating internal strains that, at times, seem to endanger the whole common currency project.

Although the European Union has a consistency of its own, the Committee may well see risks that the drawn-out process of more and more austerity accompanied by less and less growth might severely harm the good will and the political commitment that are essential ingredients of the award-winning European Union. Seen against this worrying background, only petty-minded officials can be expected to be squabbling about who will be the chosen personality to come on stage on December 10, receive the award and deliver the acceptance speech in the Oslo City Hall.

About the Author

Luis Marti
Luis Martí is Commercial Technician and State Economist. He was executive director at the International Monetary Fund and World Bank appointed by Spain, and deputy president of the European Investment Bank.

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