Skip to main content

Why Europe deserved the Peace Prize

By Pierpaolo Barbieri, Special to CNN
October 13, 2012 -- Updated 1855 GMT (0255 HKT)
The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to the European Union.
The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded Friday to the European Union.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Pierpaolo Barbieri: Nobel Peace Prize awarded to European Union stirred controversy
  • He says the EU helps ensure peace after a century of war and dictatorship
  • Europe is the world's largest market, offering an arena for trade and commerce, he says
  • Barbieri: Europe financial crisis reveals need for reform, but EU is still worth having

Editor's note: Pierpaolo Barbieri is Ernest May Fellow at the Belfer Center at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government. His book, "Hitler's Shadow Empire: The Nazis and the Spanish Civil War," will be published by Harvard University Press in 2013. His next project is about the failure of Pan-American integration.

(CNN) -- Back in 1950, the European Reconstruction Program organized a contest for posters promoting the U.S. Marshall Plan. Among over 10,000 entries, the winner was Reijn Dirksen, then barely 25 years old. His entry portrayed a ship braving stormy waters and a dark fog, pulled forward by multiple sails: the Continent's flags. The hull of the ship was made of letters spelling "Europe" and the caption read, "All our colours to the mast."

Early on Friday, the Norwegian Nobel Committee in Oslo did something unusual: Instead of rewarding the Nobel Peace Prize to an individual, it gave it to the European Union -- an international institution facing a 3-year-old existential crisis that looks nowhere close to being over.

Pierpaolo Barbieri
Pierpaolo Barbieri

Almost immediately, critics pointed out the odd choice, mocking the award to an agglomeration of countries, many of which are in recession and internal turmoil. In the last two years, many a respectable economist has argued the end was nigh for Europe's single currency, as well as the EU at large.

The Union has been likened to the League of Nations and a fascistic government due to its perceived "democratic deficit," the indictment that current supranational institutions do not answer to electorates directly enough. It's safe to assume no comparison featuring the League of Nations is a happy one.

But such criticism is gravely misplaced. The Nobel communique does not begin to describe what the EU has done for Europe, but history can.

In the century between 1848 and 1945, the Continent lived in constant crisis. Nationalisms emerged, empires crumbled, and conflagration became the rule.

For countries long mired in internal divisions, Europe became a shining light.
Pierpaolo Barbieri

Thrice did Germany and France go to war with each other, and twice they dragged the whole world with them. One of those world wars involved an unspeakable genocide conducted at industrial scale by a developed nation. In its aftermath, as Churchill warned, "an iron curtain descended across the Continent," and whole nations lived in the misery and rubble left behind by aerial bombing.

Opinion: Nobel Peace Prize a wasted opportunity

Along with demography and economics, ideas have the power to drive history. Like British-sponsored free trade in the 19th century and revolutionary Marxism in the early 20th, European integration caught on. A year after Dirksen finished his poster, the ship of Europe began to be built in earnest through the Treaty of Paris, which effectively tied the economies of France and West Germany together.

By 1956, the Soviet Union proved itself no better than the devils it had once fought when it violently crushed the Hungarian Revolution. In stark contrast, a year later six Western European nations signed the Treaty of Rome, pledging "ever closer union" and giving birth to the European Economic Community, which has since evolved into the EU.

EU named 2012 Nobel Peace Prize winner
EU President: 'We are deeply touched'
Barroso: EU deserves Nobel Peace Prize
Nobel Peace Prize: Why the EU?

For countries long mired in internal divisions, Europe became a shining light. A remarkably peaceful transition in Spain followed three decades of iron-fisted dictatorship by Francisco Franco, brought about by a devastating civil war.

In a country where philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset had once written that "Spain is the problem and Europe the solution," the promise of integration underwrote Spain's first-ever successful experiment with democracy. Similarly, authoritarian regimes in Portugal and Greece gave way to pro-European republics respectful of human rights.

And when the Berlin Wall finally fell, what former Soviet subjects wanted turned out to be not so different. They sought the freedoms and opportunities that the EU embodies. The process of integration -- along with the work of organizations like the Open Society Institutes -- contributed to a strengthening of democratic institutions in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovenia. No lasting dictatorial strongmen emerged, forcing many political scientists to revise their overly deterministic models. Just compare the post-Soviet fate of dictatorial Belarus with that of democratic Poland.

With all its imperfections, Europe today is the largest single market in the world, featuring effective anti-trust regulations, curtailing economic nationalism, and promoting free trade agreements with counties as far away as Asia and Latin America. New potential members are eager to join, from booming Turkey to crisis-ridden Iceland. Despite all the talk of stalling, Turkish membership will eventually come to pass.

True enough, the sovereign debt crisis has revealed flaws in the design of the monetary union. And the democratic deficit must be addressed through directly elected EU officers. But Europe is far more likely to emerge strengthened from the ordeal than apart. It's not just European institutions like the central bank and the Commission that speak of "more Europe" as the solution. So do national leaders like the French president and the Italian prime minister. The disagreement is not so much about the federalist future, but about how to get there. That is why even the careful German chancellor speaks of Europe as a "Schicksalsgemeinschaft" -- a "community of destiny."

Indeed, looking at the research from this year's Nobel Memorial Prize winner in economics, Tom Sargent, Europe does not compare badly with the early United States, which took a decade to transition from the Articles of Confederation to the Constitution.

The success of Dirksen's ship "Europe" is ultimately twofold. Within its members and potential members, it has made the word "dictator" into an anachronism, a seemingly impossible feat from the perspective of 1945, not to mention 1848. And beyond the Continent, it has proven that post-national integration is not only possible, but also desirable. The individual colors on the mast are still there -- but they all sail together.

The Americas -- where the founding fathers in both Northern and Southern republics once dreamt of integration -- should take note. Perhaps one day the Nobel Peace Prize will reward that project. In the meantime, Europe sails on.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pierpaolo Barbieri.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1918 GMT (0318 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says as violence claims three U.S. doctors, the temptation is to despair, but aid to Afghanistan has made it a much better place
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1833 GMT (0233 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says in California, Asian-Americans are against the use of racial criteria in public colleges.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1844 GMT (0244 HKT)
Heidi Schlumpf says if the Pope did tell an Argentinian woman married to a divorced man that she could take Communion, it may signify a softening of church rules on the divorced and sacraments
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Norcross, Georgia, Chief of Police Warren Summers says the new law that allows guns in bars, churches and schools will have unintended dangerous consequences.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Mel Robbins says social media is often ruled by haters, and people can be brutally honest.
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1644 GMT (0044 HKT)
Mike Downey says the golf purists can take a hike; the game needs radical changes to win back fans and players.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1641 GMT (0041 HKT)
Robert Hickey says most new housing development is high-end, catering to high-earners.
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1317 GMT (2117 HKT)
Alexander Motyl says as Russian President Putin snarled at Ukraine, his foreign minister was signing a conciliatory accord with the West. Whatever the game, the accord is a major stand down by Russia
April 23, 2014 -- Updated 1229 GMT (2029 HKT)
Les Abend says at every turn, the stowaway teen defied the odds of discovery and survival. What pilot would have thought to look for a person in the wheel well?
April 24, 2014 -- Updated 1104 GMT (1904 HKT)
Q & A with artist Rachel Sussman on her new book of photographs, "The Oldest Living Things in the World."
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Martin Blaser says the overuse of antibiotics threatens to deplete our bodies of "good" microbes, leaving us vulnerable to an unstoppable plague--an "antibiotic winter"
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1737 GMT (0137 HKT)
John Sutter asks: Is it possible to eat meat in modern-day America and consider yourself an environmentalist without being a hypocrite?
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Sally Kohn notes that Meb Keflezighi rightly was called an American after he won the Boston Marathon, but his status in the U.S. once was questioned
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1256 GMT (2056 HKT)
Denis Hayes and Scott Denman say on this Earth Day, the dawn of the Solar Age is already upon us and the Atomic Age of nuclear power is in decline
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
Retired Coast Guard officer James Loy says a ship captain bears huge responsibility.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1708 GMT (0108 HKT)
Peter Bergen says the latest strikes are part of an aggressive U.S. effort to target militants, including a bomb maker
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1345 GMT (2145 HKT)
Cynthia Lummis and Peter Welch say 16 agencies carry out national intelligence, and their budgets are top secret. We need to know how they are spending our money.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says President Obama knows more than anyone that he has much at stake in the midterm elections.
April 22, 2014 -- Updated 1255 GMT (2055 HKT)
Eric Sanderson says if you really want to strike a blow for the environment--and your health--this Earth Day, work to get cars out of cities and create transportation alternatives
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1408 GMT (2208 HKT)
Bruce Barcott looks at the dramatic differences in marijuana laws in Colorado and Louisiana
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 2047 GMT (0447 HKT)
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery supports the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1817 GMT (0217 HKT)
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1752 GMT (0152 HKT)
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
April 21, 2014 -- Updated 1825 GMT (0225 HKT)
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1026 GMT (1826 HKT)
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
April 18, 2014 -- Updated 1250 GMT (2050 HKT)
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
April 17, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
ADVERTISEMENT