The award of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is curious. The stated reasons are fair enough on the face of it: the EU has helped to create a stable and peaceful Europe, to extend democracy and human rights across the continent, and to make war between former bitter adversaries (notably France and Germany) impossible. These are substantial accomplishments in the cause of peace.
But the EU is far from the only institution responsible for these great successes. Indeed, on these criteria, the Nobel Committee might just as well have given the prize to NATO. It is certain that the EU would not have succeeded had not NATO (and particularly its North American members) extended a security guarantee behind which the war-torn European countries could rebuild.
“The significance of the Prize is somehow diminished when the Committee awards it as a way of making a statement of its own views on the events of the moment.”
Or what about the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE)? Little known or heralded outside the diplomatic world, the OSCE established the norms and standards regarding peaceful conduct, human rights and democracy to which those countries emerging from Soviet domination must adhere if they are to be accepted into the European family. The OSCE arguably has had as much or more to do with the peaceful transition of the former Eastern Europe than the EU has.
The selection of the EU is curious on other fronts as well. It is regarded by many of its own citizens as an unaccountable bureaucracy. Some of these criticisms go too far, but anyone who has visited the EU in Brussels will know that little in the way of democratic accountability exists relative to the bureaucratic power residing there. Europe’s current round of fiscal and political crises is marked by the extent to which millions of its citizens regard the policies they are being forced to live with as not having been democratically decided upon.
Moreover, the EU’s trade policies over the years have not exactly been generous towards the developing world. Europe’s priority has traditionally been protecting its own industries and agricultural sector, rather than allowing others in. This is particularly true of agricultural policy: the EU has sought to protect inefficient ‘traditional’ farm communities (for example in France) by keeping prices high and denying access for African, Latin American and other producers.
The Peace Prize has become controversial in recent years. Unlike the other Nobel Prizes (for chemistry, medicine, physics, literature and economics), which are awarded as retrospective recognition for achievements over lengthy careers—achievements of which time has been able to demonstrate the enduring significance—the Peace Prize is sometimes awarded to make a statement. These occasional flights of fancy on the part of the Committee result in the awarding of the Peace Prize to people and institutions based on what they have aspired to achieve, what it is hoped they will achieve, and who they are not. Barack Obama, who won in 2009 on the basis of no particular accomplishments other than fine speechmaking and being anyone other than George W. Bush, is perhaps the greatest recent example. That award was made in the hope that Obama would go on to fulfil his lofty promises. It was an encouragement, a hope for the future, and a slap in the face of his predecessor, rather than a retrospective recognition of a lifetime’s efforts.
The Peace Prize should be awarded to those who have unambiguously struggled over many years, sometimes in obscurity and at risk, for peace and human dignity. Nelson Mandela and Aung San Suu Kyi are prime examples of famous people who have won for their lifelong struggles. Shirin Ebadi, Martii Ahtisaari and Lio Xiaobo are recent examples of recipients who were less famous, but who have also struggled for peace over many years. The Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs (an international NGO) won in 1995 for decades of quiet effort to further the cause of disarmament.
The significance of the Prize is somehow diminished when the Committee awards it as a way of making a statement of its own views on the events of the moment. It is fair enough to encourage Europe’s citizens to reflect on the larger benefits that the EU has brought them over 60 years as a way of placing their current difficulties in perspective—but awarding the Peace Prize is overdoing it. When measured against the struggles of others who have won it over the years, the EU seems a less worthy recipient.