Are you a citizen of the European Union? Congratulations – you just won a Nobel Prize! The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced today that the Nobel Peace Prize is to be awarded to the European Union for its contribution to “the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” As EU Commission President José Manuel Barroso and EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy were quick to point out in a joint statement released shortly after, “it is a prize not just for the project and the institutions embodying a common interest, but for the 500 million citizens living in our Union.” The union will be added to a long list which includes names such as Woodrow Wilson (1919), The International Committee of the Red Cross (1944), Martin Luther King Jr. (1964), Amnesty International (1977), Mother Teresa (1979), Nelson Mandela (1993), Kofi Annan (2001), Barack Obama (2009).
The choice was motivated by Europe’s successful transition from an unstable region plagued by wars to a peacefully community which enables friendly cooperation. As Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the panel awarding the prize said, “Dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a seventy-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today war between Germany and France is unthinkable. This shows how, through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners.”
The timing however might come as a bit of a surprise given that the financial crisis led to social unrest in many European countries. The images of the 25,000 protesters gathered on the streets of Athens on Tuesday to voice their opposition to Angela Merkel’s visit and the austerity measures that Germany is seen to impose with a harsh determination upon the Greek people illustrate a side of Europe strikingly different from the one lauded by the Nobel Committee. The fraternity, tranquility and unity of purpose seem to have been replaced by a relentless fight between the North and the South, between rich and stable nations like Germany exercising a controversial leadership position and struggling countries forced to balance the dissatisfaction of the population with the austerity measures required by the EU. Mr. Jagland acknowledged the existence of a tense situation. “There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating,” he said in an interview. Nonetheless, he went on to express his hope that the Nobel Peace Prize will serve as a reminder that the core principles that led to the formation of the European Union stress peace and unity.
This recognition of EU’s success in maintaining peace for over six decades might bring to the forefront older questions about what truly enabled Europe to project this pacifistic image. Many scholars, including Robert Kagan, have argued that this outcome was made possible in big part because of the United States’ willingness to step in and compensate for Europe’s military weakness after WWII. The US assumed the risk of being portrayed as the “bad guy” keen on using force to ensure global security, while Europe frequently sat on the sideline expressing great outrage at its actions while at the same time benefiting greatly both in terms of security and soft power.