Last week, the European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. This came as a bit of a surprise to Eurosceptics in Britain and elsewhere, while it was greeted with warm applause from Europhiles, especially those in Brussels. Much of the criticism boiled down to the timing of the award, with some Greeks arguing that the EU is conducting economic warfare against their country, and is hence undeserving of the prize, while some British commentators argued that the prize was undeserved while the EU is going through the euro crisis.
I think that, on the issue of whether the EU is deserving of a “peace prize”, the critics have got it wrong. The Nobel Peace Prize is not, after all, the Nobel Prize for Economics. As a political project, the EU is a remarkably successful peace organization, and I think that Thorbjørn Jagland, the head of the Nobel Committee, has it about right when he says that the EU prevents “awful wars”, as do Herman von Rompuy and Manuel Barrosso when they declare the EU “the biggest peacemaking organization in history” and that “at its origins, the European Union brought together nations emerging from the ruins of devastating world wars – which originated on this continent – and united them in a project for peace.”
There is a historical imperative for the European Union that the eurosceptic criticisms ignore, and that is the need for some sort of transnational organization to moderate Continental affairs. Put simply, without some sort of overarching framework for managing relationships between European states – be it the Concert of Europe amongst monarchies in the nineteenth century or the European Union in the twentieth – conflict in Europe is inevitable. This has to do with the unviability of individual European states as a result of nationalism and the absence of empires.
In the centuries when they had large overseas empires, European monarchies could largely avoid total land wars. Between 1648 and 1793, wars tended to be fought over colonial possessions, and the major powers did not directly attack each others’ core territories. This ended amidst the revolutionary upheaval of the 1790s, during which republican France did not play by the old monarchical rules, but it was restored by the Concert of Europe following the Napoleonic Wars and lasted until 1914.
Both world wars were the products of further breakdown in the Continental order. Neither the Concert of Europe nor the League of Nations could adequately manage the rise of nationalism, expressed through the consolidation of the German Empire and the slow collapse of the Austro-Hungarian, Russian and Ottoman ones. The map of Europe after 1918 yielded a further problem: the small, ethnically homogenous national states that replaced the dead eastern empires were not viable on their own, As historian Tony Judt has argued, the small size of Poland and other central and eastern European countries meant that they were economically and militarily insecure, which provided the environment for both fascist and communist parties to rise to power and wage both intra- and inter-state violence on a massive scale.
The formation of what has become the European Union has offered a respite from the violence of the twentieth century by filling two roles: that of the Concert of Europe as well as of the dead eastern empires. It both regulates relationships between Europe’s major powers, particularly France and Germany, while also offering a stable environment for the small ethnic states of central and southeastern Europe.
Of course, the EU offers the people of Europe something that those older arrangements never could: the prospect of a better and more harmonious future. The Concert of Europe was a reactionary consortium designed to prop up struggling monarchies, a political oligarchy in which the ruling houses helped one another remain in power rather than seek to topple one another. Likewise, the eastern empires were old, feudal orders in which serfs enjoyed stability at the price of poverty. The plight of Greece notwithstanding, the EU is nothing like either of those cases.
Whether you like the European Union or not, history shows that some sort of organization is required to manage relations amongst the major powers while also providing security for the small ethnic states. The European Union, for all of its monetary problems, has been very effective at this. There are no more inter-state wars in Europe, nor are there pogroms and other intra-state violence. Some credit needs to be shared with NATO in this regard, but unlike NATO, which as a military organization can only provide a single solution to any problem, the EU has the capacity to create the civilian cooperation and institutions needed for long term peace, and has done so. Given the historical reality, that seems worthy of a Peace Prize.