The Nobel Peace Prize for 2012 has been awarded to the European Union, in what the Nobel Committee describes as a kind of lifetime achievement award for keeping Europe mostly out of war with one another since 1945.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012 is to be awarded to the European Union (EU). The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.

In the inter-war years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee made several awards to persons who were seeking reconciliation between Germany and France. Since 1945, that reconciliation has become a reality. The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a seventy-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today war between Germany and France is unthinkable. This shows how, through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners.

The Nobel Committee goes on to say that entry into the EU has been predicated on shifts to democracy and human rights, and that this has supplied a peace dividend to the world, representing “fraternity between nations.”

Obviously the Eurozone is a subset of the EU. But we’re in the midst of a situation where this subset has stripped the sovereignty of many of its democratic member states, literally overthrowing governments in Greece and Italy, and forcing its peripheral countries into crippling austerity regimes, mainly to save the hides of banks in the more prosperous northern countries. Masses of EU citizens are suffering for this cause, with their lives shattered as they would be in a war zone. In fact, the economic difficulties are giving rise to the dark underbelly of nationalism, particularly with the rise of the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn in Greece, but also in the rise of anti-immigrant parties across the EU. The Nobel Committee recognizes these “grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest,” but chooses to focus on the EU’s contribution to peace and reconciliation. “The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace,” the Novel Committee writes.

Indeed, right as one of the leadership structures in Europe, the IMF, makes the case against austerity, even endorsing an extension for Greece, other EU leaders, like the German government and the European Commission, which actually said that “it was also essential to take into account the “confidence effect” budget consolidation has.” He pointed to Belgium, but you can just as easily point to the crippling effects of austerity on really every country that has tried it in Europe.

The award only makes sense as a kind of wake-up call to the successes of this union in Europe, which the Nobel Committee did discuss in their press conference:

Thorbjorn Jagland, the former Norwegian prime minister who is chairman of the panel awarding the prize, said there had been deep concern about Europe’s destiny as it faces the debt-driven woes that have placed the future of the single currency in jeopardy.

“There is a great danger,” he said in an interview in Oslo. “We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating. Therefore, we should focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization.”

Asked if the euro currency would survive, he replied: “That I don’t know. What I know is that if the euro fails, then the danger is that many other things will disintegrate as well, like the internal market and free borders. Then you will get nationalistic policies again. So it may set in motion a process which most Europeans would dislike.”

It could be that the Nobel Committee wanted to remind the EU of the stakes. But since they aren’t involving themselves in policy arguments, “save the euro, save the EU” can easily translate into whatever the dominant forces within the EU want. And for the past few years, that has been counter-productive austerity. It’s not clear that the euro makes sense for a large swath of the Eurozone, nor that the leadership will ever implement the fiscal transfers and common deposit insurance that would allow it to make sense. So the road could lead to the opposite of democracy promotion, and a kind of ugly, bubbling nationalism caused by misery. I don’t see why this should be celebrated.

David Dayen

David Dayen