Peace Prize for the EU Is a Good Choice, Despite It All

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By Marc Champion

The Nobel Committee's decision to give this year's peace prize to the European Union is likely to pop some veins among euro-skeptics in the U.K.'s House of Lords and elsewhere, but it is a good choice.

That isn't so much for the reasons that the committee gave. It referred to the EU's original purpose in reconciling Germany and France after two world wars, and promoting peace and the spread of democracy in Europe thereafter.

As those who dislike the EU will say, there is no reason to believe Europe would have fought a third war had the EU not been created. The relatively nonpunitive terms of Germany's defeat and the U.S. Marshall Plan determined that. As for the Balkans war in the 1990s, EU countries played a big role in enabling the conflict by backing different sides, and failed abjectly to bring peace once the war started.

Still, the postwar generation of Europeans takes too much for granted what the EU has done for them, for all its overregulation and pomposity. And now, as the financial crisis prompts a general souring on the whole project, it is the right moment to remind them.

As for some better reasons to give the EU a rosette: First, though Germany wouldn't have gone to war again, it might have had a lot more trouble finding its place in Europe in a way that made its neighbors as comfortable as they have been over the past half century. The financial crisis is really the first time that other Europeans have had any cause to worry about Germany's dominant size and strength since 1945.

Second, for Europe's ex-dictatorships -- Spain, Portugal and Greece -- in the 1980s and then for the ex-Soviet bloc countries in the mid-2000s, the EU provided a natural home and direction of travel that made their transitions a whole lot easier.

That didn't work as well in the 1980s, when the process was less formalized -- not enough demands were made on Greece, for example. But the tens of thousands of pages of EU legislation that countries of central and eastern Europe had to adopt amounts to little less than regime change. They may take a while to make all the changes, but think of how much more certain we would be about the Arab Spring if Egypt was working to join the EU and adopt all its rules on civil rights and market competition.

Most important for anyone who closely watched the travails of eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 is the role the EU played in tamping down potential conflicts. Yugoslavia is the huge exception that proved the EU's abject weakness when things go wrong and decisive action is needed. But there is a big chance that without the imperative of staying in the EU's good graces, Hungary and Romania might also have fought over Transylvania, for example. Serbia, for sure, would be less docile now.

The sad thing is that the EU has run out of the kind of courage that it took to expand to the east. Keeping the doors open to Turkey would have been a major contributor to regional stability, but instead cultural prejudice and lack of vision have prevailed. Membership talks with Turkey have been blocked and the Turks have now lost interest.

Still, if the Nobel Committee can give the peace prize to President Barack Obama just for getting elected (and not being George W. Bush), then why not honor a 60-year experiment in sovereignty sharing and dispute resolution that has helped shape a continent? 

(Marc Champion is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.) 

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-0- Oct/12/2012 11:44 GMT