Keeping the peace: Nobel win a legacy boost for European Union

Has the EU earned its Noble Prize for Peace? Oliver Berg / AAP

I was minding my own business on the London Underground last Friday when I glanced at one of those free newspapers that litter the trains. That’s how I discovered that the EU had won the Nobel Prize for Peace.

Like many throughout Europe, I could both understand the decision and was surprised by it. The timing seemed unusual. Had it been awarded 20 years ago it would have been less surprising. But what we should take from the timing of this award is that things are really bad for the EU at the moment.

The idea that the EU created peace in Europe is the Euro-myth par excellence. This is not to say it is a myth in the sense that it never really happened, rather that it is an understanding of the past that is politically useful for the present.

Thorbjørn Jagland, head of the Nobel committee said in awarding the prize that “The main message is that we need to keep in mind what we have achieved on this continent, and not let the continent go into disintegration again”. The alternative was, he warned, “awful wars”.

Thorbjørn Jagland is Chairperson of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which awards the Nobel Peace Prize every year. Josefsen Jon Michael / AAP

This version of the past is the mythical capital weapon of European integration. When things get really bad it is deployed and is designed to suppress arguments questioning the speed, direction or raison d’etre of European integration. This is understandable. All polities need some sort of integrating myth and it is always easier to see the gaps in others’ national narratives than our own. It is also understandable in that the proponents of European integration should defend what they take to be right and best for their chosen political community and an argument about ending war is pretty compelling stuff.

I am not saying that this version of the past is totally divorced from the historical record. Between the two world wars and in the immediate years following them, there was a popular movement demanding the economic and political integration of continental Europe.

The French government initiative to link the coal and steel industries of France and West Germany, most closely associated with foreign minister Robert Schuman and his declaration of 9 May 1950, was of huge significance for ending Franco-German rivalries. The declaration called for peace, prosperity and the development of Africa.

But it wasn’t all peace and European togetherness that propelled European integration forward. Governments signing up to the treaties that created the forerunners of today’s EU were quick to do so as a means of preserving their weakened states rather than willingly subsuming them to the supranational ideals of European federalists.

The EU and its forebears were not the only means of ending historic rivalries. Franco-German rapprochement was pursued bilaterally by Hemlut Kohl and Francois Mitterand (both admittedly enthusiastic Europeans) in the 1980s and by Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle (hardly a cooperative figure) in the 1960s.

More importantly, although many of us lived in fear of Mutually Assured Destruction throughout the Cold War, the role of NATO – and therefore perversely the Warsaw Pact – in preventing a conflict between European states after 1945 can’t be overlooked. And the claim that European integration has created lasting prosperity cannot be so easily made today either.

While the current financial crisis in Europe may be the worst in the history of the European Union, we mustn’t automatically assume that tanks will start rumbling into Poland if the EU isn’t there. The increased prominence given to the EU as the founder and protector of European peace and the bestowing of this most recent award demonstrates that the it’s supporters are rolling out the big guns in an attempt to consolidate and bolster its legacy.

To suggest that we are at “the end of integration” is to go too far. We already have a “two-speed” or “core and non-core” EU in operation; the single currency is the most obvious example of this.

The likely result will be more integration in some parts of the EU and less of it elsewhere. Some states may leave the Eurozone; some may leave the EU, but the habits of 60 years of close cooperation will be hard to break and while European integration doesn’t arouse the hopes and idealism that it did in the 1940s, it still remains part of the political furniture in Europe. Even Greeks are not on the whole demanding to leave the EU or even the euro.

In the past decade, Eurosceptics have made good headway in their attempts to delegitimise the EU. Many citizens – especially those in persistently sceptical countries like the UK – can now imagine a world without the EU, or at least an EU with their country not included.

This would be a shame. Without the EU, international trade and relations in Europe would be far more costly and complicated. If the EU did not exist we may well have to re-invent it, but perhaps in a somewhat different form than that which exists today.