The European Union Deserves Its Nobel

The long and successful project to bring peace to Europe is one of the greatest achievements in modern human history. That fact is indisputable. And it is seldom spoken plainly. So while it’s undoubtedly true that the awarding of this year’s Nobel peace prize to the European Union is a political statement inspired by current circumstances – as the awarding of the peace prize so often is – that is no reason to dismiss it as nothing more than a stunt.

The prize is more than justified. And welcome. Because it provides an opportunity to say what is plainly true.

When the Second World War ended a mere 67 years ago, much of Europe was rubble. The devastation of two cataclysmic slaughters separated by a catastrophic depression was so profound it could even be seen in demographic charts: Instead of neatly symmetrical pyramids of men and women, stacked in cohorts, they were unbalanced, as if limbs had been severed. Those limbs were whole generations of young men, gone. Europe was mutilated.

Wise men feared the horror wasn’t finished. “In our recent history, war has been following war in ascending order of intensity,” observed the British historian Arnold Toynbee. “And today it is already apparent that the war of 1939-’45 was not the climax of this crescendo movement.” Albert Einstein agreed. So did H.G. Wells, the legendary science fiction writer whose once-optimistic vision of the future had withered as Europe descended deeper into the 20th century. “The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded,” he moaned.

Rubble, blood and fear: That was Europe when the great European project began.

It started with discussions. It moved on to negotiations. Agreements. Treaties. The European Union’s ancestor is the European Coal and Steel Community of 1951. It was nothing more than a six-nation common market in coal and steel. More talks followed, more negotiations, agreements and treaties.

Each modest step was intended to bring the nations of Europe a little closer together, to make them a little more dependent on each other. The goal, as French foreign minister Robert Schuman famously said, was to make “war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.”

And so it progressed. More talks. More negotiations. More treaties. More countries joining. It was never glamorous or exciting work and if you read Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 you will quickly realize that the wars and empires that preceded the European project make for much more entertaining history. But it succeeded. From Portugal to Bulgaria and Finland, a continent that had for centuries been ravaged by the movement of armies now experiences only the free movement of goods, services, and people – and war is both unthinkable and materially impossible, as Schuman had dreamed.

And all in 67 years. What a magnificent achievement.

But rather than applaud the European Union’s Nobel Peace Prize, some prefer to scoff and snigger. Europe is in the midst of a fiscal crisis thanks to what most now agree was the premature creation of the euro. Greece is a mess. So is Spain. Italy and others aren’t much better off. Europe’s list of problems and deficiencies is very long, indeed.

Isn’t it silly to praise Europe for anything? And why is merely not going to war considered an accomplishment? There’s been no war between Canada and the United States since the War of 1812. Maybe we should get the peace prize?

Others argue Europe’s peace isn’t even Europe’s accomplishment. The European Union “would not exist had the U.S. armed forces not ended the long hostility between France and Germany, created a new, democratic Germany, and enforced the peace for more than sixty years,” wrote neo-conservative American pundit Max Boot.

All these complaints are misguided.

Europe’s current troubles in no way diminish the magnitude of turning a continent of rubble, blood, and fear into one of peace and open borders. And only if we are so severely afflicted with hindsight bias as to be blind to history altogether can we fail to see the establishment of peace in Europe as anything less than a mighty achievement. Remember, there was nothing inevitable about it. The First World War was followed by heightened nationalism, thicker borders, militarization and another horrific war. The same could well have happened after the Second World War – but it didn’t thanks to the European project’s vision of peace and the hard work of those who made it a reality.

Lastly, it is absolutely true that Americans played an indispensable role, along with many Europeans, in making Europe what it is – from statesmen like George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower to the ordinary soldiers who stood guard against the Soviet Union. But that doesn’t diminish the achievement. It simply adds names to the honour roll.

The story of Europe after 1945 is the story of what humanity can accomplish with vision, patience and determination. It is an inspiration.

Set aside contemporary concerns and petty griping. Read Tony Judt’s Postwar. Be inspired.