The response to the Nobel committee awarding this year’s peace prize to the European Union has been a mixed bag − and predictably so. The cynics pointed to the struggles of the EU to maintain momentum, as well as relative calm at times, amidst the strife over the euro. Those more positively inclined saw the award as recognition of a half century of putting Europe on a path toward one of the most important political experiments in world history.
The proverbial glass is either half-full or half empty depending upon your prejudices. Yet either way it does not really matter. Europe’s future is being forged by decisions now being taken in Europe, but also elsewhere around the globe. Europe faces challenges and choices it can in part shape and influence, but it will also be confronted with the consequences of decisions being made among those emerging forces in other continents. The question Europe has to face is: can there be a consensus on how to see and respond to those challenges.
The evolution of Europe out of the ashes of 1945 is a good story − better than the first half of the last century. It is one that involved a decisive transatlantic dimension along with an increasingly global impact. Yet, it is an unfinished story that will continue to spread beyond Europe’s borders as it develops.
Europe has become more than the sum of its parts – a fact that is not only to be measured in economic terms. Almost five hundred million Europeans trading with each other does make up one of the world’s largest trading blocs. However, it is also represents a political bloc of twenty-seven nations engaged in a complex project, one that sees many more countries knocking at the door for membership. The process of qualifying for membership is as important as membership itself. Both dimensions − process and project − are dynamic. The story of these past few decades has been one of decisions. These decisions have steered ever more Europeans in the direction of sharing their challenges and choices with the consequences of continually expanding a web of interdependence. Up until 1990, that web was defined by the divisions of the Cold war. After 1990, more Europeans became part of the web.
In less than seventy years, Europe has gone through multiple transformations in learning how to define and how to manage that web. While not all those opportunities were successful along the way, there was a widespread shared assumption that the process was moving forward toward a more integrated European future. That involved creating new, multi-level institutions and structures which have become a defining dimension of Europe’s project involving all facets of European life, be it regulations and subsidies, travel and food supplies, or taxes and governance. Apart from decisions to expand membership, the introduction of the euro was one of the more critical major milestones along the way, and it has certainly been one of the most complicated.
Those complications were as much about the structure of the currency as they were about the continuing diversity of millions of Europeans and their differences, despite the process of Europe continuing to unfold. The actual use of the euro, as envisioned by those who preached its value, was seen as a bonding tool for European unity. Yet it was never only about the currency itself. The euro is a means, not an end. It was about the wide mix of European political and cultural priorities and perceptions behind it and the assumption that it would lead to shared policies and processes. That was and is a “work in progress,” as is Europe in many dimensions.
Indeed, the very fact of increasing interdependence has underscored − some might say exacerbated − those differences in ways that challenge the project. The experiences of individual countries in Europe on their unique paths to integrating themselves − Germany in particular − reflect those same challenges.
Europe today, in the form of the European Union, faces serious choices that will shape the process and the product of its next chapter. In its proactive manner, the Nobel Committee was trying to nudge that process along with its recognition of what has been accomplished, as well as what still needs to be done. One can question if that is the job of the Committee, but that does not really matter either. The challenges that Europe faces are not affected by the prize. The question is whether the leaders of Europe and their respective publics are.
The main message of the award may not only be one of congratulating the continent on having built a European project. The award also signals the committee’s desire to encourage the next steps taken in Europe by saying ‘you’ve done well, but now go on and continue the process.’
The next chapters of this story will be written not only about what Europe can do for itself, but also about what Europe might be able to do for the world in which it has been able to evolve during the past decades. Just like German unification in 1990, European unification emerged from an environment that was shaped by factors many of which, like the Soviet Union, are no longer relevant. Other, more contemporary forces have become shapers of today’s choices well beyond the European continent in Asia, South America, and most certainly in the troubled regions of the Middle East. It also includes changes in transatlantic equations of power and influence, along with new webs of interdependence − for better and for worse.
Europe has come a long way in a short period of history. It can take justifiable pride in that accomplishment with or without a Nobel Peace Prize. But that very accomplishment is also a signal that Europe needs to continue to pursue opportunities it has achieved, but also those it has been given in order to continue both the process and the project it started two generations ago.
In the meantime, Europe is more than the sum of its parts and processes. It is part of a much larger global project in which it has much to contribute and much to gain. Europe needs to widen its lens to see that opportunity. The Nobel nudge might help.