It has been a while since the EU hit the headlines on a happy note. Yet the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU was as unexpected as it was puzzling. In fact, the decision follows the trend started when the committee awarded it to US President Barack Obama when his country was embroiled in two wars, but at least the US is not mired in an existential crisis. The beleaguered EU was praised for contributing to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe over six decades. The EU, said the Nobel committee, has helped transform Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace.”
The EU must be given its due. War between France and Germany is now unthinkable, and the EU became a model to aspire to for Eastern European countries emerging from their Communist regimes. Moreover, it helped countries such as Spain, Portugal and Greece to make the transition from dictatorship to democracy. So far so good.
Since the eruption of the euro crisis over two years ago, however, the EU has failed time and time again to demonstrate the leadership and visionary decision-making that it ought to have to be worthy of this prize. The crisis engulfing the eurozone threatens not just the 17 countries within it, but the whole European integration project as has been reiterated by none other than the German Chancellor Angela Merkel. But let us leave aside the economics and focus on the politics for an instant.
Instead of seeking to promote a sense of unity and reignite that spark that will make our eyes glaze over with delight for an “ever close union”, the discourse in Europe is smeared by acrimonious references to fiscal sinners and saints. Anti-Germans aver that Germany has reaped all the benefits of the euro at the expense of its southern neighbours and is refusing to pay its share of the deal by stymieing efforts at creating a banking union or recapitalising troubled banks. The creditors retort that they successfully implemented tough structural reforms to improve their competitiveness whilst southerners squandered their cheap money left, right and centre. Not only, but they are also the ones with the deep pockets for the bailout funds, so unless these feckless southerners want to see their lifeline cut they ought to stop yakking on about Germany needing to boost its domestic demand and get on with some reforms themselves. This effect of this damaging talk should not be underestimated, especially considering that Europe desperately needs to garner some popular support in order to progress with integration where it is needed most. Given that austerity measures are presented as the price for continued eurozone membership, short-sighted European leaders are saving face whilst not only stalling the integration process but unravelling it.
Moreover, the EU’s appalling handling of the crisis has abetted the rise of populist and extremist parties such as the Greece’s neo-Nazi Golden Dawn party which feeds on the hated troika of technocrats making repeated visits to ensure the shattered country is strangling its economy just a little more. Italian newspaper Il Giornale ran a front page that denounced a German “Fourth Reich” whilst Greek protesters greeted Angela Merkel in Nazi uniforms when she visited Athens.
Centrifugal forces have also strengthened in the EU as a result of the crisis. Britain has slowly but steadily been distancing itself from the union and populist parties everywhere are jumping on the euroscepticism bandwagon to capitalise on voter discontent and waggle their accusatory fingers at the EU. The economic pain wrought by relentless austerity measures, which are doing nothing to stop Greek GDP plunging by a whopping 5% a year, is accompanied by increasing social tensions as citizens take to the streets in an often violent fashion. In Spain the anti-austerity protests have revived secessionist feelings in Catalonia which have done nothing to assuage markets on Spain’s precarious financial position. Catalonia, in fact, accounts for a fifth of the country’s economy. With unemployment in both Greece and Spain over 25%, the potential for social unrest is high.
This is not the track record of an organisation that continues to advance peace and democracy. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize is therefore a boon which European leaders have rightly grabbed on to (admittedly with a degree of desperation) but it is a stark reminder of the gargantuan task they have ahead of them. National politicians need to stop belittling the EU whenever it suits their political strategies and work harder to present the austerity measures not only as a steep price for continued membership of the eurozone, but as part of a more long-term process of rectifying a country’s finances which needed to be done anyways (that is, if national politicians want to continue with such draconian austerity measures in the face of their lukewarm success). If Angela Merkel decides to show the requisite leadership for battling the flames engulfing the continent and actually act on the “inspiration” the Nobel Peace Prize gave her to press ahead with closer integration, then she, and others, will need to work collectively to close the democratic deficit of the EU when this risks fuelling existing divisions. At this stage of rising popular resentment with the EU and dangerous nationalism, further integration is unthinkable if the EU’s legitimacy is not enhanced first. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize was merely the starting gun.
By Julia Fioretti