13 December 2012

Honouring a Europe at Peace

When the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize is presented to the European Union in Oslo this Monday it will no doubt be met with as much derision as was the original October announcement that the Union would be this year’s recipient.

Much of this scorn has been directed at the idea that the prize could be awarded to an institution rather than an individual, but this is hardly unprecedented; the Institute of International Law received the prize in 1904, the International Committee of the Red Cross has won it three times, and recent institutional laureates include Médecins Sans Frontières and the United Nations.

Others claim the decision discredits the prize altogether, insisting that the Union has only existed since 1993, and arguing that its main predecessor, the European Economic Community, was primarily a trading organisation, unworthy of being credited as the preeminent source of human rights and peace in Europe since the Second World War.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s press release announcing the decision comprehensively addressed these issues, however, explaining that, “The Union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”

Summarising the history of European integration, the committee cited how Germany and France have grown together since 1945, how the introduction of democracy was a precondition for the accession of Spain and Portugal to the EEC in the 1980s, and how the inclusion of countries from the former Eastern Bloc into the Union since the 1990s has buttressed human rights and democracy in those areas.

We too easily nowadays take for granted friendship between France and Germany, but this foundational relationship once seemed so profoundly improbable that in 1961 Margaret Thatcher held it forth as an ideal to which the British should aspire, saying, “France and Germany have attempted to sink their political differences and work for a united Europe. If France can do this so can we.”

Given France and Germany’s acrimonious history ever since Bismarck sought German unification through blood and iron, it was remarkable that they could stand together in the ash and rubble of the Second World War and seek to “make war unthinkable and materially impossible”, as French foreign minister Robert Schuman put it in May 1950.

The Schuman Declaration led to the foundation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, with Italy and the Benelux countries joining France and Germany to pool the resources most necessary for warfare, effectively barring them from waging war against each other. The Treaty of Paris, establishing the ECSC, began by speaking of the need to work for peace worldwide, the importance of a stable Europe for this, and the necessity of building such a Europe through “concrete actions which create a real solidarity”.

These “concrete actions” can seem slow and even trivial – the comedian Eddie Izzard has described the EU as “the cutting edge of politics, in an incredibly boring way” – but they have built and sustained peace within the European Union and its forerunners over more than 60 years.

Nuclear umbrellaThis was long facilitated by NATO’s nuclear umbrella, and both the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights have helped ensure that European institutions operate in line with agreed standards of human rights, but neither of these required ordinary Europeans to work side-by-side, day-in-day-out on projects that bind us together.
It would be a shame if we in Ireland were to adopt the characteristically English error of putting the institutional cart before the aspirational horse by painting the European Union as an economic organisation with delusions of grandeur.

We miss the point of the ‘Common Market’ if we forget that it was an economic means directed towards social and political ends, aimed above all else at establishing and sustaining peace within Europe.

Strange though it may now seem, Margaret Thatcher explained this with remarkable clarity in the lead-up to Britain’s 1975 European referendum, pointing out that “security is a matter not only of defence, but of working together in peacetime on economic issues which concern us and working closely together on trade, work and other social matters which affect all our peoples”.

Peace does not keep itself, and John Hume stressed the importance of Europe’s pragmatic, piecemeal, and indirect way of working for peace in his own 1998 Nobel Prize acceptance speech, observing that the “European Union is the best example in the history of the world of conflict resolution and it is the duty of everyone, particularly those who live in areas of conflict, to study how it was done and to apply its principles to their own conflict resolution”.

Hume went on to describe how the European visionaries, understanding the importance of recognising difference, created institutions which enabled and required people who differed from each other in all sorts of ways to work together in their common interest.

During Britain’s 1975 referendum campaign, Shirley Williams argued that the application of Catholic social teaching would be a major factor in Europe’s everyday political and economic life, and although this sadly hasn’t always been the case, it’s no accident that the European project sought from the first to embody such principles of CST as subsidiarity, solidarity, and the common good.

Several of Hume’s ‘visionaries’ - notably Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, and Alcide de Gaspari – were devout Catholics who aimed to create a peaceful and prosperous Europe, respectful of diversity and conscious of its Christian roots. Schuman, for instance, declared in 1958 while President of the European Parliamentary Assembly – now the European Parliament – that: “All the European countries are permeated by Christian civilisation. It is the soul of Europe which must be restored to it.”

The danger now, of course, as that we risk forgetting the point of European integration, and it is apt that the Nobel Committee ended its October press release on a note of admonition, recognising that the Union is currently experiencing economic turmoil which in turn is leading to social unrest.

Like so much else in Europe, the single currency was always intended as an economic means towards the political end of greater European unity. It is, therefore, all the more ironic that current efforts to preserve the Euro are placing such strains on the likes of Ireland, Spain, and most especially Greece that extremist parties are on the rise and the entire project looks more precarious than ever.

The Nobel Committee’s decision should be regarded not as an overdue and now irrelevant accolade, but as a stern warning to the politicians and peoples of Europe to remember why we originally chose to come together, and to remind us of what we stand to lose.

-- Originally published in The Irish Catholic, 6 December 2012.

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