The bile that has poured from so- called euro-skeptics since the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to the European Union is not surprising. To a journalist who has covered the Balkans for more than two decades, it is also reminiscent of the nationalism that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia. Back then, though, no one spoke of Yugo-skeptics.
Today, if Serbs, Croats or Albanians used the language of anti-Europeans further west, they would be labeled extreme nationalists and a threat to stability, without so much as a blink of an eyelid.
It is a testament to the EU’s conciliating power, one of the qualities that last week’s prize sought to highlight, that nationalist Serb, Croat and Bosnian politicians who brayed for blood 20 years ago would not dream of attacking the EU in the way their counterparts in “old” Europe so casually do. In these countries, you have to be pro-European to get elected because people understand the alternative and are afraid of it. For all its faults, and they are many, the EU has institutionalized and tamed the resolution of conflicts and disputes between Europe’s nation states in a way that would have been unimaginable to leaders a century ago. Too many Europeans now take that as a given.
Here in the Balkans, such things are not taken for granted. A few hours after the announcement of the Peace Prize, I was talking to Vesna Pusic, the foreign minister of Croatia. She welcomed it.
“The fact is that people here know that the alternative to peace is a realistic option, and not something abstract,” she said. Croatia will join the EU in 2013.
During the Second World War, Pusic’s ministry building was used by the Gestapo, to control a quisling Croatian regime. In 1995, Serbian rockets fell but a stone’s throw away. The memory of conflict is fresh.
As Nikola Popovski, the foreign minister of Macedonia told me, it’s important to remember that the EU was founded as a peace project, “not an organization to mutualize debt.”
Every day, European ministers and officials of policing, industry, trade and more meet in Brussels or elsewhere to negotiate the rules that will govern these areas for Europe’s citizens. Most of this is boring beyond belief, so it doesn’t get reported. Many people in Europe are therefore ignorant of what the EU really does, or that most of the time, it benefits them. It also makes their governments partners, like it or not.
Croatia recently hosted a gathering of the European Fund for the Balkans, which over the past few years has sought to build networks of young people across the region. A Macedonian who had worked for his government’s European integration office took out his phone and explained how the strictures of the EU accession process meant that whenever he had a problem (and here he waved his phone), he just texted or e-mailed his opposite number in Croatia to ask: “How did you do this?” Within minutes he got the reply. Not many years ago such easy cross- border cooperation would have been unthinkable.
After Croatia, all of the remaining non-EU Balkan countries are on track for eventual membership. Farther afield, in the South Caucasus, Georgia has no such commitment. Yet, as in the Balkans, European flags fly outside every Georgian ministry. While I was in Tbilisi two weeks ago for the Georgian elections, Tornike Gordadze, the outgoing state minister in charge of euro- Atlantic integration said his country’s emphasis on Europe was not fundamentally about joining, a distant prospect, but “about values and structures.”
Europhobes in long-established democracies will scoff at such sentiments, because they regard them as empty words. They are not. It is no coincidence that, having lost the election, Gordadze and his colleagues who use this language conceded defeat and are preparing for opposition. This has never, and I reiterate the word never, happened in Georgian history.
One hundred years ago this month, war erupted in southern Europe. I tried to interest various editors in stories about the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, to mark the moment. The two wars changed the map of this part of Europe, cost the lives of tens of thousands of people, saw the eventual displacement of millions and formed the overture to World War I, which was sparked by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo less than two years later. No one was interested.
To me that lack of interest is demonstrative of a complacency, which in turn makes the work of the europhobes and the extreme nationalists easier. It means that people in Western Europe no longer imagine war as something that’s real. That is a shame, and it is dangerous.
In these troubled times, it is clear that a new Europe is emerging. Quite possibly it will consist of an inner core of euro-area members and a peripheral outer zone, to which the U.K. and other non-euro members will belong -- assuming the U.K. remains in the EU at all. Another alternative is that the EU begins to crack up completely, in which case Europeans will be atomized into their mostly small states, some of which, whether in the EU or not, may be undergoing a simultaneous process of Balkanization.
I am thinking here of the possible dissolution of the U.K. after a Scottish referendum in 2014, the breakup of Spain and, of course, Belgium. Some political developments cannot be stopped, or wished away, but without a larger structure in which all current and would-be states are members, the chances of conflict -- armed or by other means -- would be greater.
Hostility to the EU project is especially unfortunate now, when Europe’s share of the world’s population and economy is shrinking. It seems obvious that that at such a moment of decline relative to unpredictable new powers, unity is strength. Twenty-seven or more countries each standing in splendid isolation would mean 27 mostly irrelevant countries, of which only six would have a population larger than the 23 million strong municipality of Shanghai.
From Cyprus to Bosnia to Greece to the euro, any fool can point to Europe’s failures. But the award of the Nobel Peace Prize is the right choice at the right time. The EU is in trouble, and the prize reminds us what the union really stands for: “peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights.” To those who say we would be better off without it, I say be careful for what you wish for.
(Tim Judah is an author and journalist. He writes about foreign affairs and covers the Balkans for the Economist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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