By Matthew Stenberg, Transatlantic Community Analyst
Earlier this month, the European Union was awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. The Nobel Committee emphasized the EU’s role in making war unthinkable among formerly hostile European powers, the establishment of democracy in former dictatorships in Southern Europe, and the support of fledgling open societies in Central and Eastern Europe after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Reaction to the award has been mixed, with some voicing support and others reacting with shock and dismay. Nigel Farage, head of the UK Independence Party, emphasized the divisions created by the recent Eurozone crisis and the EU’s democratic deficit. Similar sentiments were echoed by members of the British Conservative Party and Greek Syriza Party, who suggested that the award could both undermine the work of previous winners and the Nobel Committee as an institution. French National Front head Marine Le Pen said that the Nobel Prize rewarded “social war.” The Heritage Foundation, confusingly, complained about low EU defense spending and argued that the award could instead have been offered to Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili.
Current European leaders, however, seized the opportunity to shore up support for the European project and shared credit with EU citizens across the continent. Former national leaders like Gerhard Schröder and Valery Giscard d’Estaing, who advanced integration during their careers, also saw the Nobel Prize as a just award for years of peacebuilding and cooperation. Meanwhile, media commentary across the world – for publications ranging from CNN and the Wall Street Journal to Le Monde, El Pais, Bild, and the Moscow Times – defended the selection. The New York Times, while supporting the decision, noted that the Nobel Prize has been used to help push for the resolution of international disputes and “endorse political courses of action.”
With the selection as controversial as it has been, secondary debates have cropped up about who should accept the award and where the prize money should go. While the EU is hardly the first organization to be honored for its work in peacebuilding, organizations have been frequently awarded the Prize in conjunction with an individual; recent examples include the United Nations (Kofi Annan) in 2001 and the International Atomic Energy Agency (Mohamed ElBaradei) in 2005. Spiegel argued that Jacque Delors would be a better honoree for the accomplishments of European integration. Belgian daily De Standaard offered an anonymous European citizen. Ultimately it was decided that the presidents of all three major EU institutions – José Manuel Barroso in the Commission, Herman Van Rompuy in the European Council, and Martin Schulz in the Parliament – will accept the award on behalf of the EU. Meanwhile, suggestions for the use of the Prize money range from funding Erasmus to aiding struggling Eurozone members.
The negative reactions to the Nobel Peace Prize have been dramatically overblown as euroskeptics attempt to take advantage of the high profile nature of the award for political gain. Receipt of a Nobel Peace Prize does not indicate that the European Union has always been successful in promoting peace or that relations within the organization are where they should be. Criticism of EU efforts – or lack thereof – in the Balkan Wars in the 1990s are justified and the organization faces serious ongoing challenges, especially with regard to the Eurozone as well as the treatment of immigrants and minorities. But the Nobel Peace Prize does not indicate perfection, only a positive track record and a laudable goal. Europe is demonstrably more peaceful and prosperous than it was before. The EU is one important reason why this is the case. Hopefully earning the Nobel Prize will propel it even further.