The State of the (European) Union

Friday started just perfectly for me. As a Franco-Belgian double citizen, I woke up to the very pleasant surprise of being the recipient of not just one, but two Nobel Peace Prizes. I am not so sure what I have done personally to contribute to such an honor. Neither am I sure that the many politicians that use the euro’s financial crisis as a free ride to fish for votes through xenophobic discourse really deserve that honor. The fact is, however, that the vague and often confusing entity floating (seemingly pointlessly) over our heads, the European Union, does deserve to be singled out as one of institutions that have best contributed to peace and the building of democracy in the world. Thus, if the Nobel Peace Prize is to be considered a legitimate award (and Barack Obama’s award in 2009 suggests the contrary), let us have and enjoy it!

All jokes aside, the timing, context, and form of the award were quite deplorable. That a committee made up of Norwegians, who have blatantly rejected any possibility of joining the European Union, and are as far from the Greek’s economic situation as it gets, awarded the EU with such a prize, is tainted with dark irony. Moreover, that the award was deserved in October 2012, in the midst of an unprecedented currency crisis, almost seems like a clumsy (if not haughty) attempt at comfort. The Nobel Peace Prize is the EU’s “consolation prize”, a dismal reward for the EU’s contribution to the world. My initial reaction upon seeing this award was joy. Once my (very short-lived) emotion dissipated, and as I remembered that this was not 1992 but 2012, I started considering that this was nothing but a somewhat kind Norwegian shout-out to a neighbor in distress.

Had the award been given 1992, there would have talk of the European Union’s glorious purpose, of the vista of its founding fathers and, most importantly, of its bright future. In 2012, it is a mere reminder that there is more than the eurozone’s crisis to the EU, and that 50 years of peace are not automatic and should be cherished. Perhaps the most important indication of this award is that we are spoiled children; so successful has the EU been that the idea of a Franco-German war is beyond incredulity. Democracy from Portugal to Poland; a common market; a European Parliament - all of these seem so natural.

If recognizing a common heritage among European nations and striving to put this common heritage of warfare and competition behind us is to be a Europhile, a Europhile I must be. As a French citizen, taking the train to Berlin so casually and carelessly is something that my grandfather would have never even imagined. When I envision Germany I think of Berlin’s beautiful scenery, its vibrant youth and its monuments. The same thought to my ancestors would have sparked bitter rivalry and animosity.  Through the Erasmus educational program, thousands of European students are able to visit each other’s institutions easily. Last September, Britain, through Europol, was able to cooperate with the French police in arresting the teacher who fled the island with a 15-year old student.

The successes of the European Union are numerous, but the institution has also been deficient in many regards. It is obvious that the euro has been a typical case of bureaucratic mismanagement (if not incompetence or dishonesty). The foreign policy of the European Union has been equally confusing and its frantic expansion is at times laughable. The European Union’s economic woes have undoubtedly aggravated the problem by creating a generation of young, jobless, and angry people. They look to their parents’ and grandparent’s prosperity and blame the introduction of the Euro and the Schengen space for their distress. This has spurred the rise of xenophobic and nationalist parties that threaten the region’s very stability.

However, to understand the European Union as a factor for peace and regional cooperation is to get to the core of its significance; in itself it justifies the experience of supranational governance. First, peace, and especially in the face of the devastation Europe has inflicted on itself in the past, is absolutely priceless. The cost of this economic crisis could never outweigh 50 years of peace in Europe. Secondly, though the political economy of Europe is fragile these days, there is hope that Europe will recover stronger from the economic crisis. Perhaps such a grave crisis, and the realization that institutions can collapse, will prompt Europe into the real economic and political union it must become to survive.

It is easy for international observers to mock the Europeans’ incapacity to coordinate their politics. It is even easier for today’s generation to take peace for granted and equate the European Union with unemployment and restricted opportunities. The future of the European Union is still uncertain, and full of daunting challenges; in order to succeed it must stop alienating national populations and convince them that Brussels is not just a meeting club for elitist bureaucrats. The fact is, however, that the European Union is one of the most exciting and ambitious challenges ever set in motion by politicians. Nobel Peace Prize or not, it deserves to prevail.