When President Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize at the end of his first year in office it was a strange bet on the future – perhaps he would be a peacemaker one day. Today’s announcement awarding the prize to the EU is an even stranger bet on its past.
The EU did build peace where there had been war and then drew Eastern Europe into an enlarged Europe. All would have been good reasons for a Nobel Peace Prize at the time. But those historic successes just make its dismal present look even more threadbare. Far from being a morale booster at a time of austerity, it is a grim reminder of just what bad times the European vision has fallen on.
That vision has been debased through the internal discord of an unresolved euro crisis that has exposed the region’s lack of political will at home. But the Nobel is awarded for what the recipient has done abroad. Here the Nobel committee is eloquent in its silence because, put bluntly, there is no European foreign policy today to speak of.
On issue after issue, from the Middle East peace process to the Arab Spring, from Iran to relations with China or a region such as Africa or Latin America, Europe is less than the sum of its parts. It has its own EU embassies now and no international meeting is complete without a clutch of national and Brussels officials, each in turn jumping up to speak “for Europe”. This is a circus of process and protocol with usually dismal results.
In a forum such as the UN in New York, there is an effort to allow one ambassador alone to speak for Europe on many issues and, while that has reduced the spectacle of a parade of speakers, it too has a price. What is said is, even by UN members’ standards, often bland to the point of absurdity in order to earn consensus support from all EU ambassadors.
On Turkey, the prize committee claimed that “the possibility of EU membership for Turkey has also advanced democracy and human rights in the country”. More relevant surely is that opposition inside Europe to Turkey’s membership has increasingly made it look elsewhere for friends and partners. And where is the leadership on the Arab Spring that Europe exercised so powerfully in its support for the transitions in Eastern Europe after 1989? Where economic assistance and soft power might have given Europe a powerful role, it is instead consumed by its own economic crisis.
On the Iran nuclear negotiations, the EU has a formal lead role but you would not know it, as policy is still made out of Washington – and increasingly it seems Jerusalem. Whenever US efforts to advance the peace process in the Middle East falter an observer might hope to see Europe, a major donor to the Palestinians and friend of Israel, step in, but again the will to lead is absent and internal European divisions, between those who favour Israel and others with greater Palestinian sympathies, are apparently irreconcilable.
This is Europe’s dilemma: even when not stricken by a fundamental crisis in its economic governance, it is a market, a society and even a culture more than it is a polity. It has reminded us of shared values and a shared history and has in good times bathed us in a common prosperity and in the warmth of shared citizenship after centuries of conflict.
But boldness and bravery in waging peace abroad, in the service of human rights and democracy, are the very antithesis of the values of this usually comfortable and complacent EU. On China, for example, an EU human rights agenda takes second place to the competition between different members to win trade and contracts. Now at a time of extreme economic discomfort, when conflict has displaced complacency, courage seems even more absent from Brussels than usual. Nobels are not forged from an obsession with process and procedure. The best go to brave individuals and institutions that have often defied their times and peers to open a path to peace. Many have courted unpopularity and controversy as they have done so. The Nobel sets that record straight and celebrates the best in human leadership.
So this Nobel seems a bizarre and sentimental tribute to Europe’s past that further shames its present. Only a Nobel for economics would have seemed stranger.