Listen Now

Quiet Revolutionaries

Jennifer Welsh on why the European Union deserves the Nobel Peace Prize.

By: /
16 October, 2012
By: Jennifer Welsh
Professor in International Relations at the University of Oxford and a Fellow of Somerville College

There has been a passionate and divided reaction from the chattering classes to last week’s announcement that the European Union is the 2012 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Euroskeptics have been quick to dismiss the Nobel Committee’s decision as wrong-headed and politically motivated – rewarding a Europe that has a bloated bureaucracy in Brussels and is crumbling under the weight of its financial struggles. These critics also suggest that the committee is risking the reputation of the prize, adding to a string of dubious selections that includes the 2009 award to U.S. President Barack Obama for his promise to bring about a global reduction in nuclear weapons.

On the other hand, supporters of Europe have praised this year’s award as a wake-up call to European leaders to reflect upon the achievements of the last six decades, and to pull together to weather the storm that is engulfing countries such as Greece and Spain. Commentary in The Guardian (the U.K.’s left-leaning broadsheet) reminded readers that Europe has always been about much more than trade or money, and that the interstate peace that has reigned on the continent is too easily taken for granted.

The volume of activity devoted to the awarding of this year’s prize (including on social media such as Twitter) is no doubt music to the ears of the committee, comprised of what its secretary, Geir Lundestad, calls “five unknown Norwegians.” (There is also the delicious irony that Norway has explicitly chosen not to become a member of the EU itself.) The core objective of the annual prize is to bring the world’s attention to efforts to bring about peace – defined originally in the will of Alfred Nobel as either promoting “fraternity” among nations, reducing or abolishing standing armies, or holding peace conferences. Questions have always been asked about exactly what kinds of actions and achievements meet those criteria. Indeed, debate and controversy about the wisdom of the annual choice have raged ever since the very first recipient, Jean Henry Dunant, head of the International Committee of the Red Cross, was announced – critics at the time claimed that since the ICRC didn’t actually prevent wars from breaking out (but rather served to ameliorate the effects of wars), it wasn’t deserving of the prize.

But this kind of debate doesn’t bother the “five unknown Norwegians.” For them, the goal is to get people to care about the prize. The chatter over this year’s award to the EU, though often laced with criticism, proves that it does. The committee has no illusion that its prize can actually bring about peace, or cause oppressive governments to fall. The main effects of the prize, when it is given to particular individuals, is either to provide a kind of “loudspeaker” for someone who previously was relatively unknown to the wider world (as was the case for the Iranian Shirin Ebadi in 2003, or the Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo in 2010), or to provide greater protection for those who are struggling against oppressive forces (as in the case of Lech Walesa in 1983, or Aung San Suu Kyi in 1991). Very very occasionally, the prize can help to put some wind in the sails of movements seeking change, as it did in 1960, when the recipient was former African National Congress leader Albert Lutuli, or in 1996, when the award went to the East Timorese pro-independence activists Carlos Filipe Ximenes Belo and José Ramos-Horta.

If the Nobel Prize has these symbolic and normative functions, the question turns to whether the European Union deserved this “loudspeaker.” Organizations have received the award before – not only the ICRC and other humanitarian organizations, but also the United Nations (in 2001). So, there is nothing out of the ordinary in the fact that an acronym, rather than a person, has been singled out for praise. One might have heard similar grumblings about giving the Nobel Prize to the UN not long after peacekeeping failures in Rwanda or the Balkans, or the breakdown in relations among members of the Security Council over Kosovo.

By choosing the European Union, the Nobel Committee is saying two things. First, it is arguing that the EU has had a hand in bringing about the extraordinary peace on the European continent. Many critics – including the Globe and Mail’s editorial team – want us to believe that it is the military might of the United States (and, in the Globe’s view, of Canada, as well) that brought peace to Europe, by providing a security umbrella under which states such as Germany and France could take the risky step of trading and co-operating, rather than fighting. In other words, it is NATO (another acronym), rather than the EU, that should have received the phone call from the Nobel Committee last Friday.

This thesis is also popular in so-called realist international-relations scholarship, which privileges the role of power (and, more precisely, the distribution of power) when explaining state interests and behaviour. But such an approach gives too much weight to “structural” factors – it fails to take into account how both values and historical interactions shape state interests, as well. In the case of Europe, the value or idea that we must “never again” see such a destructive war was a powerful motivator behind the actions of the EU’s original architects, Jean Monnet and Robert Schuman. Moreover, the cumulative experience of co-operating over more technical tasks (such as the production of coal and steel) gradually seeped over into areas that had greater impact on state sovereignty.

Realism also fails by taking a “politics as usual” approach to studying European integration. We can explain everything that has happened on the continent, it argues, with the tools we’ve always used to explain state interactions. What this confidence overlooks, however, is the degree to which the European Union is something different, or sui generis. Not only did European leaders build a new kind of interstate system in their particular geographic region (one that combines “thick” co-operation with more traditional kinds of interstate rivalry), but the institutions and rules they created “socialized” existing and prospective members of the union into particular kinds of behaviour – including the protection of human rights. It isn’t just peace, then, that Europe has achieved. It’s a particular kind of liberal, democratic peace. And it is a peace that has spread from the original core to 27 member states.

Second, the “five unknown Norwegians” are saying that the European idea is fragile and must be guarded with vigilance. They are not blind to the devastating effects of austerity (as some of the Twitter commentary seems to suggest). Quite the opposite: They are all too aware of its corrosive potential, and of the need to get Europeans talking, again, about what motivated their project in the first place. Moreover, they are speaking to a new generation of Europeans. They recognize that ideas are ultimately held by individuals, and that the generation that built Europe is dying out, to be replaced by the generation that has, until now, benefitted hugely from its success. This new generation has not had the formative experience of building the European Union, and hence its commitment to the union’s longevity may be less robust.

This second message from the Nobel Committee is surely a welcome one. Its members are not naïve enough to think that they can turn around the malaise that has set in in much of Europe. But as the guardians of one of the world’s most prestigious peace prizes, they have wagered that it is worth lending the Nobel cache to the EU to try to refocus and re-energize Europe’s policy elite, and to encourage Europe’s future leaders to re-read their history books. Does this risk degrading that cache? No more than many of the risky decisions the “five unknown Norwegians” have made over the last century. And it certainly has got us talking about peace.

Photo courtesy of Reuters

Before you click away, we’d like to ask you for a favour … 


Open Canada is published by the Canadian International Council, but that’s only the beginning of what the CIC does. Through its research and live events hosted by its 18 branches across the country, the CIC is dedicated to engaging Canadians from all walks of life in an ongoing conversation about Canada’s place in the world.

By becoming a member, you’ll be joining a community of Canadians who seek to shape Canada’s role in the world, and you’ll help Open Canada continue to publish thoughtful and provocative reporting and analysis.

Join us