The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the EU came as a surprise to many. As usual, on a continent where deep-rooted democracy means that everything is submitted to intense debate and criticism, Europeans themselves were not only proud, but often also disgruntled, sarcastic and ironic about this prize. Was this high distinction not awarded to the EU in a moment of weakness, when it was struggling against a serious economic crisis that brought to the fore the differences — or even selfishness — between European peoples, rather than their sense of solidarity and cohesion?
The EU will receive its prize today in Oslo, Norway. This is an opportunity to look again into the meaning of this prize — the meaning intended by the Nobel Committee — but also the meaning Europeans should give to this prize in building their future.
Starting in 1870, Europeans were at war with each other almost continuously for six decades, starting two world wars, sacrificing tens of millions of lives in increasingly intense combats and ruining themselves and others in a terribly vicious cycle.
In the six decades after 1945, Europeans succeeded in establishing a mechanism for peace and cooperation, which is now called the EU. However sarcastic commentators have been about the prize, the European integration process achieved one remarkable objective: changing the tide of history for 500 million Europeans.
The EU was a vehicle for them to become reasonable masters of their fate rather than continuing to be the puppets of a human passion for conflict and self-interest, and from there also becoming a welcoming family for the new democracies that appeared on the continent at the end of the 1970s and after the fall of the Berlin wall.
However, the EU actually did much more than that in 60 years of “deepening” its common economic regulations and policies.
It helped its less well-off regions to develop. It gradually brought to all its member states the world’s highest standards of democracy and human rights; in health and environment protection; in food safety and in labor rights.
It established an increasingly integrated foreign policy. It became, with its 500 million citizens and 27 — soon to be 28 — countries, the world’s largest economy, but not the most selfish (the EU is by far the largest provider of assistance to developing countries).
The EU is so much more than the initial project of a zone of sustainable peace that people tend to forget what an achievement it has been to simply prevent conflict. With achievement comes ever higher expectations from European citizens. Understandably, they also tend to be disillusioned when the EU is unable to deliver, sometimes due to the seemingly ever-unfinished, or rather constantly evolving, character of the integration process.
Yet the EU is making progress, step by step.
The Nobel Committee, in a moment of particular European gloom, reminds one that the EU is worth cherishing and is still a very unique and solid example of peace-making in what remains an otherwise pretty unstable world.
Europeans really can be grateful for this reminder.
This being said, it should be hoped that Europeans do not take this prize only as a reminder, but also as a wake-up call.
A call to remind Europeans that first, peace is an enterprise that is never finished.
As younger generations emerge who have not had direct experience of war, the risk is that they will see less value in peace.