The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union was an inspired choice. After centuries of civil wars, culminating in the most devastating conflict the world has ever seen, Europe has been largely at peace for nearly seventy years. Many deserve credit for this. Focussing on one of the central institutions of the ‘European project’ is fine. Nevertheless, it risks distorting our understanding of the peaceful Europe that the Nobel award appears intended to underscore.
The European Union began as an organization premised upon economic integration, although the dreams of many of those who were engaged in the process was for full-blown political union. Nevertheless, until the 1990s the focus within the European Union was probably more on a shared interest in material prosperity than any broader vision.
The larger perspective on Europe’s future was more he work of the Council of Europe. Founded in 1949, a year before the European Coal and Steel Community which is the ancestor of the European Union, the Council of Europe’s mission is the construction of a common democratic and legal area throughout the continent, based upon ensuring respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law.
At the heart of the Council of Europe is the European Convention on Human Rights and its primary implementing organ, the European Court of Human Rights. It has provided the forum for the development of a shared European understanding rooted in respect for human dignity, pluralism and equality.
The Council of Europe has always had a larger catchment than the European Union. Today, it numbers 47 member states, whereas the European Union has only 27 members. A poor country can join the Council of Europe as long as it shares the organizations values. While the European Union, too, imposes political requirements for membership, it has always been and remains a club for wealthier countries.
Today, the Council of Europe and the European Union are joined at the hip. The Nobel committee might well have made a joint award as it has often done in the past. It is a pity that yesterday’s announcement leaves the Council of Europe (and the European Court of Human Rights) in the shade.
Today’s papers point to complaints in Greece, which sees itself victimized by the European Union and especially its common currency. A spokesman for the leftist party Syriza said: ‘In many parts of Europe, but especially in Greece, we are experiencing what really is a war situation on a daily basis…’ He should ask his grandparents to remind him about Greece in the 1940s, when millions died a violent death, before making even implied comparisons with Europe when it was really at war.
Still, the people of Greece would probably have understood better the message that the Nobel committee wished to communicate if the prize had been centred on the Council of Europe rather than the European Union. The story about the permanent peace that emerged in the course of what the late Eric Hobsbawm called the ‘short twentieth century’ has more to do with human rights than it does with the euro.
For several months, I have been meaning to write about Stephen Pinker’s brilliant book The Better Angels of our Nature. This is a good occasion, because Professor Pinker may well have influenced the Nobel committee. His thesis is that the world has become less and less violent. He makes a very compelling case in his erudite analysis of many centuries of human behaviour. One of the chapters is entitled ‘The Long Peace’. He writes:
The international entity with the best track record of implementing world peace is probably not the United Nations, but the European Coal and Steel Community, an Intergovernmental Organization founded in 1950 by France, West Germany, Belgium, the Netherland, and Italy to oversee a common market and regulate the production of the two most strategic commodities. The organization was specifically designed as a mechanism for submerging historic rivalries and ambitions – especially West Germany’s – in a shared commercial enterprise. The Coal and Steel Community set the stage for the European Economic Community, which in turn begot the European Union.Many historians believe that these organizations helped keep war out of the collective consciousness of Western Europe. By making national borders porous to people, money, goods, and ideas, they weakened the temptation of nations to fall into militant rivalries, just as the existence of the United States weakens any temptation of, say, Minnesota and Wisconsin to fall into a militant rivalry. By throwing nations into a club whose leaders had to socialize and work together, then enforced certain norms of cooperation.
Professor Pinker’s analysis would be even stronger were he to focus more upon the role that shared values, of human rights, democracy and the rule of law, have played in European unification. Historically, that has been more the work of the Council of Europe than of the European Union.
I suppose that it will be the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, who goes to Oslo to accept the prize in December. But maybe the honour should go to Cyprus, which has the Presidency of the Council of the European Union. It is to be hoped that the acceptance speech will recognize the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights.
When he learned he had won the Nobel Prize for literature, William Butler Yeats famously said: ‘How much?’ It is now about a million dollars. This is unlikely to make a significant impact on the fortunes of the euro. Maybe the European Union could earmark the prize money in a way that would symbolically underscore the importance of human rights and also acknowledge the contribution of the Council of Europe. It should give the money to the International Institute for Human Rights, which is located in Strasbourg just next to the European Court of Human Rights.
The Institute was founded in 1969 by René Cassin with the Nobel prize money he received in 1968, largely in recognition of his work in the drafting of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. At the time he received the award, Cassin was president of the European Court of Human Rights. The Institute has been plagued with financial problems for many years, and the Nobel prize money would make a difference.