I was driving when I first heard about the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. It was Friday morning and I was listening to the radio in the car. They interviewed Javier Solana, formerly known as “Mr PESC”, the person in charge of common EU foreign and security policy between 1999 and 2009. He could barely hide his excitement. His assessment was that the award was entirely deserved: The EU and its predecessors (the European Communities) are the reason why Europe has left the continuum of bloodshed behind. In Solana’s view, in this time of Euro-crisis (both financial and institutional), the Nobel Prize will strengthen the European identity, and this recognition will remind European leaders that their power increases when the ties among them get tighter.
In explaining its decision, the Nobel Committee, constituted by 5 members of the Norwegian Parliament, listed these five achievements: Franco-German reconciliation after World War II; support for new democracies in Greece, Portugal and Spain in the 1980s; support for former Communist States in the 1990s; modernisation of Turkey; and peace building in the Western Balkans. The leaders of the EU bodies (Barroso on behalf of the Commission, Schulz on behalf of the Parliament and Van Rompuy on behalf of the EU Council) acknowledged to be quite shocked and quickly claimed a chunk of the credit.
Not surprisingly, the decision has created a vigorous controversy. It is certainly true that Europe has experienced peace and political stability, as well as a relative economic wellbeing (at least until now), for more than 60 years. Over history the homo europeansis has not been used to such privileges. Many have contributed to this goal. Like Prof. William Schabas, we may ask why the Nobel Committee decided to grant the honours to the EU and not to the other pan-European intergovernmental organisation: the Council of Europe, founded in 1949, based in Strasbourg, conformed by 47 States and under whose umbrella operates the most developed supranational human rights tribunal: the European Court of Human Rights.
According to the statement of the Nobel Peace Committee, the reasons focus on the internal European dimension rather than the role of the EU in the world. Foreign policy is still a relatively new policy realm at the EU level. In fact, although we can identify some steps forward in policy coordination at the UN, European countries are still very protective of their own sovereignty in foreign affairs and struggle to compromise to a common foreign policy. The world is changing and the axis of power is shifting towards the East and the South; European countries and the European Union are in desperate need for a human rights strategy for a post-Western world. It would have been judged as premature if the Nobel Committee had focused on foreign policy to make its point.
Nevertheless, even from a domestic viewpoint, serious questions remain about the opportunity of this recognition. In the name of austerity and through the pressure exercised in Brussels and Frankfurt, the democratic pillars of Europe, which many considered to be made of marble, are shaking: the election of “technocrats” as prime ministers in Greece and Italy, the super fast constitutional reform in Spain which assures investors that the debt satisfaction is an absolute priority for the Treasury, the overt threats to the Greek electorate in case they dared voting for the left-leaning Syriza. Europe is moving and there is little evidence that the fundamental changes we are witnessing correspond to truly democratic processes.
Europe is living its own human rights crisis with steps back in the protection of human rights in the context of counter-terrorism, growing right-wing populism and extended xenophobia and racism. Moreover, the economic crisis is turning into retrogressive measures in socioeconomic rights, with a rising social inequality. As said by Marek Marczynski, Deputy Director of Amnesty International’s Europe and Central Asia programme, this is “no time for EU to rest on laurels”:
The EU won the prize on its achievement of peace within its borders and respect for human rights. No doubt both are a reality. However, it is also not the time to bask in this glory since the last few years have shown a decline in attention to human rights violations and desperate lack of political will to devise an internal EU human rights mechanism.
When I first heard the decision of the Nobel Committee, I couldn´t help contrasting it with the one of 2009, when President Obama was awarded the Prize. I remember at the time European media was quite sceptical about the convenience of recognising a man who was only in the beginning of his first mandate and, therefore, hadn´t even had the chance to contribute in any way to world peace (not to mention what we can think about this issue three years later). However, anybody who is barely familiar with American politics knows that a Nobel Peace Prize for an American president may be an honour for half of the American public, but it is considered as a sign of weakness by the other half, which seeks a strong leader willing to use force unilaterally if required, a leader for whom “No Apology” is the way to do business in international affairs. From the American angle, the Nobel Peace Prize could have been a poisoned apple for President Obama. This is not going to be the case this year. Europeans still care about what the world thinks of them; we/they want to be perceived as highly-educated, polyglot and cosmopolitan people who believe in a multipolar world. From this perspective, the Nobel Peace Prize is the best present one can think of. The problem is that, politics aside, I don´t think the European Union is the best candidate one can think of.
Photo: European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso receives flowers from Atle Leikvoll, Norway’s Ambassador to the European Union (Yves Herman/Reuters)