Peace and reconciliation
Last Friday’s awarding of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is an extraordinary event. It received little media coverage in Israel, the technical reason being that it occurred on Friday, when most people are not in working mode (akin to Sunday in Western countries) and where there are no newspapers on Saturday and the Friday night TV news is mostly pre-recorded features and interviews. By Sunday morning, it was ancient history – and overshadowed by an event of far greater historical import and national significance, namely the Israeli national football team’s 6-0 trouncing of Luxembourg, its largest ever away win.
The substantive reasons behind the lack of interest and impact are that most Israelis do not have a high opinion of the European Union and do have a very low opinion of the Nobel Peace Prize. With regard to the latter, it’s fair to say that many people, in the West and around the world, share that view. They recall the awarding of the prize to President Obama before he had done anything of importance, let alone significantly advanced the cause of peace and fraternity between nations. Older people, or those who have read any history, recall the prize going to Henry Kissinger and his North Vietnamese counterpart for negotiating what turned out to be a smooth path for US withdrawal from South Vietnam and the subsequent rapid conquest thereof by the North. Israelis particularly recall the awarding of the prize to Yasser Arafat, Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres for their role in the Oslo Accords, and how that peace venture also ended in tears.
However, this award is (almost) unique in the long history of the Peace Prize (stretching back to 1901) in that it has gone to an institution, rather than to one or more individuals. As noted, most Israelis don’t like the EU, but what is far more certain than how people feel about or towards it is the fact that very few Israelis know much about the EU, or what it does – or why it even exists. In light of that fact, a good place to start in filling this lacuna in knowledge and understanding might be the official announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, explaining the rationale for this year’s award – which, it is fair to say, took the entire world completely by surprise. (It can be found at http://nobelpeaceprize.org/en_GB/laureates/laureates-2012/announce-2012/).
I will select a few key phrases and sentences: “the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012 is to be awarded to the European Union (EU). The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.
“…Since 1945, that reconciliation has become a reality…Today war between Germany and France is unthinkable. This shows how, through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners.
“In the 1980s, Greece, Spain and Portugal joined the EU. The introduction of democracy was a condition for their membership. The fall of the Berlin Wall made EU membership possible for several Central and Eastern European countries, thereby opening a new era in European history…”
There you have it, in a nutshell. The EU, which most people associate with economics and trade, with regulations and bureaucracy and, more recently, with endless crises and never-ending summitry, is actually engaged in the pursuit of a compelling political vision – that of replacing the European tradition of wars and bloodshed with democracy and prosperity. Furthermore, it has chalked up remarkable achievements in its relatively short career, especially when considering the condition Europe was in after 1945 and the difficulties imposed by the Cold War and its aftermath.
However, the timing of the award is no less meaningful than its substance, as the committee noted explicitly: “The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU’s most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights. The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.”
This is a phenomenal achievement, which even the Norwegians – the only country to vote in two referenda not to join the EU – appreciate and support, so long as it doesn’t cost them any money. But the “grave economic difficulties” represent the other side of the EU coin: its systematic failure to achieve reconciliation in the other, accounting, sense of the word – keeping track of expenses, what they went to and how they were covered by income.
The EU’s leaders are currently meeting, for the umpteenth time, to wrestle with the financial and economic crisis in which they have been mired for three years, since the scale of the Greek disaster became clear. Despite their efforts and intentions, they will not solve or resolve the crisis, because it is beyond their capability to do so. They will, at best, ‘kick the can a little further down the road’, but eventually the underlying insolvency of many, perhaps all, of the EU countries – caused by the gulf between the cost of the promises made and commitments undertaken toward their citizens, relative to their future income streams – will overwhelm them. The well-deserved Nobel Peace Prize is meant to salute the EU and encourage its leaders, but ultimately it merely highlights how tragic the failure of the EU really is.