Monday, October 15, 2012

The EU's Nobel

The European Union won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize a few days ago, and the mockery and anger that followed were as vehement as they were predictable. For what it's worth, I'm not a big fan of giving such awards to institutions rather than individuals. But does the EU deserve such an honor as much as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007), the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005), or the United Nations (2001)? Sure.

Yes, the United States and NATO and the Cold War framework helped prevent war in Europe. But they did not guarantee the productive cooperation between former enemies and rivals which has changed the continent and made war in Western Europe unthinkable. The founding fathers of the European Community were far-sighted men, and their project of European integration helped create an enormously prosperous continent for hundreds of millions of people. Earlier hold-outs like the Sweden, Finland and Austria joined in the 1990s precisely because the European Union was a roaring success, and Europe and the EU were starting to mean the same thing in the eyes of many. For Greece, Spain, and Portugal, and then for the 10 countries of Central and Eastern Europe that joined in 2004 and 2007, and for those in the Western Balkans and further east who continue to look to the EU, it means something even more important - an anchoring in a community of democratic values for people who had lived under dictatorships in the decades after World War II, and feared its return.

So why the moaning? Yes, European governments and the bureaucrats who make the EU run don't seem as heroic as activists facing authoritarian governments or fighting for development and rights for the world's poorest. And yes, there are hordes of British and American commentators who have always hated the EU, and those keen to further debase the prize to further embarrass the controversial 2009 winner, President of-then-less-than-a-year Barack Obama. But much of the complaints are because of the timing. The committee of Norweigans have given the EU the prize when it looks like it might be in its dying throes. Or else in the birth pangs of a more integrated polity which would be constructed against the will of a Euroskeptic movement that has never been larger or noisier. The EU has utterly failed to handle its crisis of confidence, with Angela Merkel's Germany imposing austerity on the troubled states at a level that is self-defeating in terms of calming the crisis. Elections cannot fundamentally change policy in countries like Greece. Even if a "Grexit" looks less likely in the short term than it recently did, a Spanish bailout looks in the cards. Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble poo-poo any talk of a fundamental change in their policy. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi helps, but makes clear he can't save the euro by himself. Europe lives in a state of permanent economic crisis. The European Union's future is, bluntly, bleak. And the Nobel Committee is obviously hoping to spur greater Brussels and European capitals to save their union, whatever it takes.

The late Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental and political activist. She was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004. I see her as among the more interesting and more deserving of the recent award winners, and there is no doubt at all in my mind that she was morally superior to the likes of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair. But on some level I wish the EU had received this award in October 2004.

In 2004, membership of the European Union increased from 15 to 25, as the countries of Central Europe "returned to Europe." That was an accomplishment worth awarding in and of itself, on top of all that the EU had done over the decades to cement Franco-German friendship and southern European democracy and to spread prosperity across the continent. The EU was also wrapped up in its constitutional debate - before it had become a constitutional crisis which was only put on ice in 2009, only to be reopened months later by the Greek debt crisis. Would such an elite recognition of an elite project have helped the "Yes" vote in France and the Netherlands in 2005? Maybe not, but one could hope. Would a European Union that had moved forward with deepening as well as widening as its shapers had always intended, currency union before true political union but ultimately requiring that as it was, have been able to avert the crisis before the wave of Euroskepticism left it half-finished? Maybe not, but one could hope.

In 2012, though, the euro looks like a half-baked idea and the European Union's consensus-based decision-making combined with angry publics and scared governments have turned the common currency into an infernal machine to undo the political gains of European integration. Thomas Risse, in his book A Community of Europeans? Transnational Identities and Public Spheres, notes that bad news about the European Union in public spheres is bad for the construction of European identity. That doesn't bode well for today's EU of headlines about bailouts and anarchy in Athens. If there's a counter-balancing "we're all in the same boat" feeling, as I believe there is, it still weaker than the feeling many appear to have that this whole European integration thing might have been a dreadful mistake.

Barack Obama actually did a great job with his Nobel acceptance speech. Selected for peace, but elected by the American people as commander in chief, he laid out an eloquent case for just war. That the troop surge in Afghanistan might have been a mistake (though not unjust) does not invalidate the correctness of Obama's argument. The European Union also needs to take this opportunity and use it to build momentum towards a solution of the crisis. The sight of Herman Van Rompuy, Jose Manuel Barroso, and Martin Schulz, of the European Council, Commission, and Parliament, squabbling over who gets to accept the award will not make the EU look good. Everyone can go to Oslo, but there should be one speaker and one damn good speech. Out of those three, Van Rompuy, as representative of the member states, who are indeed the actors which actually created the European Union, has the best case for primacy. He is the President of Europe that everyone was talking about before the quiet Belgian was actually selected. But you might find a better speaker, or a louder voice. Would Angela Merkel be appropriate? She would be if she laid out a serious, doable path forward that actually stabilizes the European Union, which she would then take to the German people in her re-election campaign over the following year. If not, maybe Schulz. He's German, and he represents both the most democratic of the European institutions, the Parliament, as well as the Social Democrats, the political party that could change Merkel's counterproductive policies if she won't change them herself.