Skip to main content

Why Europe deserved the Peace Prize

By Pierpaolo Barbieri, Special to CNN
updated 2:55 PM EDT, Sat October 13, 2012
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
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
The former U.K. prime minister and current U.N. envoy says there are 500 days left to fulfill the Millennium Goals' promise to children.
updated 9:10 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Julian Zelizer says the left mistrusts Clinton but there are ways she can win support from liberals in 2016
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
Peter Bergen says the terror group is a huge threat in Iraq but only a potential one in the U.S.
updated 1:34 PM EDT, Sat August 16, 2014
Mark O'Mara says the way cops, media, politicians and protesters have behaved since Michael Brown's shooting shows not all the right people have learned the right lessons
updated 11:23 AM EDT, Sun August 17, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says the American military advisers in Iraq are sizing up what needs to be done and recommending accordingly
updated 3:41 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Marc Lamont Hill says the President's comments on the Michael Brown shooting ignored its racial implications
updated 5:46 PM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Joe Stork says the catastrophe in northern Iraq continues, even though many religious minorities have fled to safety: ISIS forces -- intent on purging them -- still control the area where they lived
updated 6:26 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Tim Lynch says Pentagon's policy of doling out military weapons to police forces is misguided and dangerous.
updated 9:15 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
S.E. Cupp says millennials want big ideas and rapid change; she talks to one of their number who serves in Congress
updated 7:57 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Dorothy Brown says the power structure is dominated by whites in a town that is 68% black. Elected officials who sat by silently as chaos erupted after Michael Brown shooting should be voted out of office
updated 7:49 AM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Bill Schmitz says the media and other adults should never explain suicide as a means of escaping pain. Robin Williams' tragic death offers a chance to educate about prevention
updated 11:05 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Nafees Syed says President Obama should renew the quest to eliminate bias in the criminal justice system
updated 4:24 PM EDT, Thu August 14, 2014
Eric Liu says what's unfolded in the Missouri town is a shocking violation of American constitutional rights and should be a wake-up call to all
updated 3:22 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Neal Gabler says Lauren Bacall, a talent in her own right, will be defined by her marriage with the great actor Humphrey Bogart
updated 6:56 AM EDT, Fri August 15, 2014
Bob Butler says the arrest of two journalists covering the Ferguson story is alarming
updated 4:35 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Mark O'Mara says we all need to work together to make sure the tension between police and African-Americans doesn't result in more tragedies
updated 4:06 PM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
Pepper Schwartz asks why young women are so entranced with Kardashian, who's putting together a 352-page book of selfies
updated 7:08 PM EDT, Wed August 13, 2014
Michael Friedman says depression does not discriminate, cannot be bargained with and shows no mercy.
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Mary Allen says because of new research and her own therapy, she no longer carries around the fear of her mother, which had turned into a generalized fear of everything
updated 3:59 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gilbert Gottfried says the comedian was most at home on the comedy club stage, where he was generous to his fellow stand-up performers
updated 4:54 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Iris Baez, whose son was killed by an illegal police chokehold, says there must be zero tolerance for police who fatally shoot or otherwise kill unarmed people such as Michael Brown
updated 8:46 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Maria Cardona says as he seeks a path to the presidency, the Kentucky Senator is running from his past stated positions. But voters are not stupid--and they know how to use the internet
updated 10:19 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Gene Seymour says the shock at the actor and comedian's death comes from its utter implausibility. For many of us over the last 40 years or so, Robin Williams was an irresistible force of nature that nothing could stop.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
Soledad O'Brien says the story of two veterans told in a documentary airing on CNN shows the challenges resulting from post-traumatic stress
updated 11:25 AM EDT, Tue August 12, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must not surrender to apathy about the injustice faced by African Americans
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT