The EU and the Ignoble Institution

Winning the Peace Prize

One wonders whether having a peace prize makes an assumption about redundancy and diminishment in advance. Ever year, the arguments seem to mount.  This year, the choice of the European Union being the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize struck many as daft, dangerous and redolent with black humour.  In a more distinct sense, it suggested that Alfred Nobel would turn in his grave.  When you start considering that the man who fronted the cash and the name for the award was a dynamite fiend and pioneer, very little will be making him stir.  From the start, the prize has been something of a running joke, an award susceptible to manipulation.

What has struck some critics as peculiar is that of awarding an entity rather than an individual.  Not only that, it is an entity that does work other than peace building.  “The EU,” claimed a puzzled editorial of the Bangkok Post (October 14), “is involved in so many different areas not related to peace building, and frankly, some probably at odds with peace building, that trying to justify awarding it the Nobel Peace Prize becomes an argument in the abstract.”  The editors feel that the worthier choice would be Malala Yousafzai, a 14-year-old Pakistani girl who was gravely wounded by the Taliban for campaigning for girls’ rights to an education.

This is a good argument, till you realize that many “peace” prize recipients have been dealing with peace in the abstract for years.  Former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger must surely rank up there as being the most conspicuous example of this, when he accepted the prize at a time, as was noted then by his sparring partner Le Duc Tho, when there was no peace to be awarded over.  Vietnam was still, and would continue to be involved in conflict for a few more years.  It might be argued, as in fact has been by such groups as the anti-austerity Syriza party that peace is a dream at the moment in various parts of Europe.  “In many parts of Europe, but especially in Greece,” argues Syriza spokesman Panos Skourletis, “we are experiencing what really is a war situation on a daily basis albeit a war that has not been formally declared.  There is nothing peaceful about it.”

The critical view is on better ground in terms of reading Nobel’s will, which does specific an award to a “person”.  Again, this has been interpreted in most broad terms. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (1954) and Amnesty International (1977), have received the award, amongst other specialized agencies.  The irritation, at the end of the day, seems to be with the EU more than anything else.

Take the ill-considered remarks of entrenched EU critics like Ukip leader Nigel Farage.  “This goes to show that the Norwegians really do have a sense of humour. The EU may be getting the booby prize for peace because it hasn’t created prosperity.  The EU has created poverty and unemployment for millions.”  Former UK chancellor Lord Lamont, found it “ridiculous, preposterous and absurd” that the EU get the prize at a time when individuals were prancing up and down the streets of Athens “dressing up as Nazis” (Guardian, October  12). “What next?” inquired Dutch Euroskeptic Geert Wilders, “An Oscar for Van Rompuy?”

The union is certainly under threat, facing ruinous debt and a debate over austerity, and the viability of its institutional (mis)arrangements.  Could the prize be seen as a fillip?  “It was a cheer for an entity tackling the continent’s economic misery – particularly in debt-ridden Greece, Spain, and Portugal – as some member countries might be faced with dropping the euro, the EU currency” (CNN, October 12).  Chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, and committee members wanted “to remind all Europeans about what we have achieved on this continent and that we should not let it start disintegrating again and getting nationalism and extremism (to) grow on this continent, because we know what that leads to.”

The report card of the EU is more impressive than depressing.  In the grim world of conflict resolution, it succeeded in bringing stability to a continent periodically ravaged by wars.  In the words of the Nobel Committee, the EU “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”  But the entity is uneven, misshaped, complex. It has reached its natural breaking point after the seeds of the project – peaceful cooperation between France and Germany – took root and flourished.  To award such a prize on the hope that it provides some band-aid is wishful thinking.  But to criticize it merely for being an imperfect institution is an argument that doesn’t, at the end of the day, hold much water.

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and can be reached at: bkampmark@gmail.com. Read other articles by Binoy.