In a sense, there can be no faulting the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to award the European Union the 2012 Peace Prize. Its current economic turmoil aside, the EU has been a remarkable example of political integration that has advanced the idea of common interest in a region bedeviled by war.
“The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,” the committee said in its statement. Many people for whom uncertainty and fear had become the norm were able to enjoy stability and prosperity thanks to the principle promoted by the EU, not just as an institution but as an idea, through which a united vision of the future could be shared.
There have of course been some notable exceptions. The EU’s stance during the collapse of former Yugoslavia, for instance, has created a bloody stain that time will struggle to remove. Nevertheless, if viewed as a lifetime achievement award, the EU will perhaps justifiably feel that it deserves the peace prize. The question, though, is does the accolade also signify that the EU is nearing the end of its lifetime?
As the Nobel Committee prepared to announce that the EU had won the prize, neo-fascists in Athens terrorized people who wanted to watch a play. Their behavior went unchallenged by authorities in a state were institutions are crumbling faster than they can be rebuilt.
Some will say that Greece is a unique case — that years of political corruption and institutional neglect have left it in a state of dysfunctionality that is unmatched. But then again, they say that Greece was a unique case when the debt crisis erupted and look how that turned out.
The EU would be kidding itself if it believes that the social collapse in Greece could not happen elsewhere. Extremist parties are already prominent in countries like Hungary and Austria, while Geert Wilders continues to spread his hate in the Netherlands, despite his recent setback in the country’s recent elections. It would be naive to think that prejudice will not thrive amidst the social and political rubble created by the crisis and the failure to deal with it effectively.
Perhaps the most pervasive form of prejudice, which will prove corrosive for the EU’s foundations, is the antagonism that has developed between the eurozone core and periphery. It is tragic that, egged on by politicians who were too cowardly to explain to their people how this crisis arose and how responsibility should be apportioned, millions of Europeans have bought into stereotypes about others living within the Union. This disharmony has entwined itself with the feeling that Europe’s institutions have become largely undemocratic and threatens to choke all that is good about the EU.
An extensive Pew Research Center poll revealed a pessimistic, skeptical Europe of great contrasts. After decades of progress during which travel restrictions have been dropped, more Europeans are traveling within the Union for work, awareness and respect for each other’s history and culture increased, and a common future appeared possible, the EU now faces the real prospect of much of this being rolled back by the painful insularism of the past.
In fact, that process has already begun and unless European leaders find some courage, the divisions could become irreversible. In that respect, perhaps the Nobel Prize is a good idea: a wake-up call to decision-makers and citizens alike, reminding them that their fragile construct, which promises so much, could soon be shattered.
The European Union may have earned the Nobel Peace Prize but it quickly has to find a way to be at peace with itself.