The Nobel Challenge

The EU’s Nobel Peace Prize is well-deserved.  The EU has transformed most of Europe from a continent of war to one of peace, as the committee said. It has done so by supporting democracy, human rights and the rule of law, building interdependent economies and institutions. Far from the spotlight of high-level peace negotiations, this is the slow slog of peacebuilding. Peace by bureaucratisation, as Catherine Woollard calls it.

This is not a technocratic exercise. Far from it. The belief in the EU as a peace project is alive and well – and much debated (as at the recent EPLO event). The European project was driven by the conviction that the contintent must never be devastated by war and genocide again. It is a profoundly political project. When driven by politics (Enlargement),  the project is successful. When passed off as a technocratic exercise (the Euro), less so.

In response to the prize, EU leaders have been quick to congratulate themselves. Presidents van Rompuy and Barrosso claim that the prize ‘shows that in these difficult times the European Union remains an inspiration for leaders and citizens all over the world.’ Surely this misses the point. The prize underlines what how important the EU peace process is to Europeans, how fragile it is, and that it is worth saving.

The Nobel committee was explicit: the EU won the prize for building peace in Europe. They did not mention of the wider world: the EU did not win the prize for its global role. Regardless, the Presidents state that ‘The European Union will continue to promote peace and security in the countries close to us and in the world at large.’ This may be their aspiration, and it is a worthy one. But there is clearly a long way to go before this happens – otherwise the Nobel committee might have mentioned it.

Rather than backslapping, this prize should provoke reflection on Europe’s past, to learn from it, and apply those lessons to the EU today, both within its borders and globally.

The EU can draw on immense resources in peacebuilding, institution-building, democracy promotion, and security sector reform to help build peace in different ways across the world. The crucial ingredient it lacks is the conviction, the political vision, that drove the European peace project. Europe needs a vision of its role in promoting peace in Europe and in the world, and leadership to match.

Rather than rest on their laurels, EU leaders might better reflect on what this prize really means and what they need to do to live up to the Nobel Challenge, at home and abroad.

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