Saturday, October 13, 2012

Europe, Nobel and Economics

The Nobel Peace Prize committee has twice in recent times done strange things. They awarded President Obama, just a few months into his term, the prize for holding out the potential of peace – not something he has been able to deliver on. Now they have awarded the European Union the prize for maintaining peace and promoting justice for the last sixty years.

Reactions to the most recent announcement range from the grateful to the disdainful. Just before the announcement was made, Greek citizens wore Nazi uniforms in protest at the visit of Chancellor Merkel of Germany, the Queen of Austerity and author, in their eyes, of the dismemberment of the Greek economy. Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain (and to some extent Italy) are struggling for survival as nations in the face of daunting economic challenges and over 21 million across the EU are unemployed, including a large tranche of young people (18-24) who increasingly look like a “lost generation”. But the EU was not awarded the Nobel prize for economics.

The idea that a strong Germany after the second world war might have a resurgence of its ambitions to own more land to enable German expansion – Hitler’s main ambition – and therefore the EU has been instrumental in the work of peace keeping is nonsense. But that is not what the Nobel committee was pointing to. They pointed to a post-second world war Europe rebuilt on the basis of co-opetition, transparency and a focus on freedom – freedom of movement of people, capital and resources. The EU project has achieved amongst twenty seven countries some remarkable things, not least of which is the promotion of justice and human rights.

The EU project is fragile. At the heart of this fragility is a tension between those who recognize that the survival of the Euro as a currency requires the political integration and loss of sovereignty for all who wish to use the Euro and others who seek to protect and preserve sovereignty of nations. In short, national identity versus integration is the major tension at the heart of the EU. While the trigger for this tension is economics, the real issue is identity and nationhood.

There are other issues within the EU too. The growing power of the EU justice system and parliament to impose laws and regulation on a nation that has little opportunity to oppose, reject or select the laws relevant to them. The growing costs of the EU at a time when nations have little economic room to pay more. The massive bureaucratization of government and the growing power of unelected officials – the Commission – to impose regulation or to make decisions against the interests of particular nations.

But one cannot deny that, love it or hate it, the EU has been one of the most interesting and compelling stories of peace seeking, justice making and collaboration on the planet. Its not perfect, but deserves some recognition before the EU implodes as countries like Britain hold votes to determine whether to stay or go and the Eurozone falls apart as the costs of bailing out economies like Greece, Spain and Italy spiral beyond the EU’s ability to pay.

One British parliamentary friend suggests that the Nobel prize is the violin playing as Rome burns – a last gesture of good will before the proverbial stuff hits the fan. He may be right (he is a former Foreign Secretary, so knows a thing or too). But the prize does recognize some real achievements. It is also involves an injection of cash – something the EU desperately needs.

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