The award of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union (EU) is being met with some derision and disdain. Commentators are confusing the current economic troubles in the Eurozone with the founding ideas of the European Union. Perhaps the EU is in one way a victim of its own success. As one Twitter commentator wrote: it is easy to criticize human rights when one has them.
Other commentators seem to be under the misapprehension that the Nobel Peace Prize is awarded only to individuals. Although many respected individuals have been awarded the Peace Prize, from Aung San Suu Kyi to Elie Wiesel, Andrei Sakharov to Wangari Muta Maathai, many organizations have also been selected. This includes the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the International Committee of the Red Cross, the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and two Quaker organizations, the American Friends Service Committee and Friends Service Council.
The driving force behind the European Union in 1950 was “the determination never to allow wars to destroy Europe again”, as Martina Weitsch of QCEA noted at a recent roundtable discussion hosted by the European Peacebuilding Liaison Office at Quaker House.
The success of this project is such that many people in Europe have forgotten the huge significance and the terrors of war throughout most of European history. European countries were at war with each other for centuries. There was the Hundred Years War, which lasted from 1337 until 1453. The Thirty Years War (1618-1648) left much of central Europe devastated. Then there were the Napoleonic Wars and the Crimean War. These are just a few of the wars which were fought within Europe over the centuries until the war fighting finally culminated in the years of death and destruction that we call the First and Second World Wars. Nowadays we tend to think of wars as only taking place far away and among people with different values. Some Europeans even think that peace has been achieved, and that working for peace is out of touch with the needs of these times. We are fortunate to be able to think this way. But the reality is that many people are caught up in violent conflict in many parts of the world. And these conflicts are often aggravated by European involvement.
There has been no war between member states of the EU since its foundation, and it is right that this is being recognised as a significant achievement. But the recognition inherent in the Peace Prize should not encourage us to be complacent.
There are several reasons why we should not be complacent. EU member states continue to sell arms around the world, even to regimes which abuse human rights. Violent conflict is sometimes aggravated by European investment in large scale infrastructure projects, e.g. when people are not compensated for loss of land and livelihood. In our supermarkets and shops we Europeans can buy products from the settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, settlements that are illegal under international law. This provides the settlements with income and undermines the EU’s own stated policy of recognising the settlements as a major obstacle to progress towards a lasting peace in the Middle East.
Another important reason for not being complacent is that, whilst the EU enjoys internal peace and is not as a community engaged in warfare, some EU member states are currently engaged in fighting wars. The EU by its inaction appears to condone the military engagement of the UK and other member states in Afghanistan. One might ask whether peace in Europe has been achieved at the price of externalising violent conflict. European arms companies profit from wars fought outside Europe. Recruiting soldiers creates employment and business for European companies producing boots, rations, weapons and munitions. Our “pax europa” – peace within Europe – has not brought peace to people in the rest of the world, nor to Europeans (including under-18-year-olds in the UK) who are recruited into our armed forces.
So, whilst the EU is to be congratulated for doing so much to create the peace that we have enjoyed in Europe over the past 60 years, there is much work still to be done. The EU and its member states should refuse to base national well-being in part on wars or the arms trade. European investment in countries outside Europe needs to be closely scrutinised to ensure that it does not increase inequality and sow the seeds of violent conflict. The 18th century Quaker John Woolman asked himself whether the seeds of war were to be found in his possessions and chose to maintain a simple lifestyle as a consequence. Now, in the 21st century, we need to ask ourselves whether our affluent lifestyle may be one of the drivers of war. By all means let’s celebrate the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU, but none of us in Europe can rest on our laurels.