Maybe the Norwegian Nobel Committee ran out of good candidates for this year’s Novel Peace Prize and didn’t want to transfer the money to the Main Fund, as they’d done in the past. So they handed it to the European Union, which triggered an avalanche of snickering and mocking. It wasn’t exactly an obvious choice. Its government is engaged in a phenomenal power grab, and its sub-group, the Eurozone, is mired in an extraordinarily screwed-up debt crisis that has led to bloody protests in the streets.
The committee has raised eyebrows before. In 1973 it awarded the Peace Prize jointly to Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and the North Vietnamese general Le Duc Tho for negotiating over a four-year period the Paris Peace Accord, signed in January 1973. Everybody knows how that story ended. People were also incredulous when Yasser Arafat was awarded the Peace Prize in 1994. Today, after all these years of tensions and bloodshed, the situation between Israel and the Palestinians is still not resolved. And then, in 2009, it was President Obama who was awarded the prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples,” though he’d been in office for less than a year. It was based, perhaps, on his speeches. Since then, his peace credentials have caught some flak.
Unperturbed, the Committee declared in its Announcement that the EU and its “forerunners” deserved the prize for their six-decade contribution “to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,” brushing aside the current “grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest.”
The Announcement referred to the three wars that France and Germany had fought over a seventy-year period—the Franco-Prussian War, World War I, and World War II. “Today war between Germany and France is unthinkable,” it said; the “historical enemies” have become “close partners.” It reasoned that the EU brought Greece, Spain, and Portugal into the fold, all of which were governed by dictatorships during my younger years. And it points to the EU’s influence in resolving the nightmare that ensued after Yugoslavia broke apart. And so “the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.”
War, with the associated pillaging and plundering, was a way of life in Europe long before the Romans started reporting it—their convoluted sentences drove me nuts two thousand years later—and long before anyone there knew what “nations” were. Conquests were the norm. Some wars were small. Others make the war in Afghanistan seem outright brief, for example the Thirty Years’ War (Central Europe) or the Hundred Years’ War (between France and England, and respective allies). Generations fought in them.
Those wars never taught Europeans anything. Nor did World War I; as always, it didn’t take long for the next war to come along. But World War II did teach Europeans something: better to be partners than to wage war on each other.
From the “Europe in pieces,” as a friend of mine phrased it, emerged a “Europe of peace.” While even the most independent-minded Brits might want to distance their country from the EU government, its bureaucracy, and certainly its misbegotten currency, few people would want to regress to the “Europe in pieces.”
Beyond the power-grabby EU institutions centralized in Brussels, Frankfurt, and Strasbourg, with their unelected power brokers, with their tens of thousands of functionaries and officials, with their lawyers and rule makers that try to interfere in every aspect of people’s lives, from salami makers in Italy to fishermen in Spain, there is the Europe of free movement of people, goods, and capital, of collaboration, of friendship even.
But the euro is doing massive damage to the European fabric. It is creating tensions and even rage where there were none in the years leading up to the crisis—in Greece for example. Europe needs to deal with it. Or else, the euro risks tearing up the “Europe of peace” to leave behind a “Europe in pieces.” But even these problems pale compared to the wars that ravaged the continent before. And what the EU and its “forerunners” have accomplished is that war won’t be considered as part of the solution.
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