The EU’s Nobel: but can peace survive the euro crisis?

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It is inevitable that many people will react to the EU’s Nobel prize with cynicism, but it feels appropriate that the world’s most impressive “peace project” should be recognised, and poignant that it should be done at a time when the world is in turmoil with war so close to Europe's borders. This is also a powerful – and much needed reminder – of what is at stake in the euro crisis and hopefully encouragement for Europe to get its act together.  

The prize reminds us that the EU is quite simply the most exciting political experiment in history – not just because it has ended war between European countries; because it has supported the transition of its neighbours; or even because it has come to enshrine important values.  

It is exciting because it is the biggest innovation in the exercise of politically power since the creation of the nation state 500 years ago. The EU has shown how citizens can enjoy living in small states that are close to their citizens and at the same time enjoy the protection and economies of scale that you get from having a market with 500 million consumers and policies to tackle continental sized problems from organised crime to climate change.  

More importantly, the EU has shown that there is a different way of thinking about security. Rather than relying on a balance of power and non-interference in each others affairs, the EU model of security is based on deep economic, political and above all legal interdependence. Law Courts have replaced armies as the way todeal with disputes.

This European model has been a pioneer on the world stage and has been spreading in four fundamental ways:

  • Enlargement from 6 to nearly 30 members
  • through the EU’s impact on its neighbours,
  • through Europe’s push to create global institutions such as the WTO and ICC which enshrine aEuropean way of working,
  • and finally by inspiring every other region in the world to integrate.

For all the talk of a G-Zero world, the EU has been a force for order and predictability in a changing world. One of the big stories of the last 60 years has been the creation of a European-inspired legal order in the shell of an American security order. It is Europeans rather than Americans or Chinese or Russians who were behind the creation of a World Trade Organization that can override national sovereignty to prevent protectionism. And it is Europeans who have pushed for institutionalised answers to global problems from climate change to genocide. One might say that if the US was the sheriff of the liberal order, the European Union was its constitutional court, bringing legitimacy to the inroads it made in national sovereignty.

People have asked if the liberal order can survive in a post-American world. But I think there is a real question about whether, even if the liberal order can survive the end of American hegemony, it could it survive the marginalisation of the EU’s legal order. In other words, even if the liberal order can survive US decline, could it survive European decline?

The European way of exercising and organising power seems to be uniquely well-suited to an interdependent world with collective action problems.  But it is also the most challenging. The root of the current euro crisis comes from the fact that the European Union is a network of politicially and legally interdependent states rather than a state in itself. It is clear that it would have been possible to build a state democratically – so the real challenge is whether it is possible to make the EU into a political rather than a technocratic network one with the integration to support a single market and the legitimacy to hang together.

The EU project faces its greatest ever threats: Europe’s economies are facing a lost decade, populism and xenophobia are gaining a foothold (Golden Dawn etc), the security order around the EU is becoming unstuck. There is a need to address the conditions in which such politics flourish – as ECFR’s work on reinvention has shown. The EU has unfinished work also in building peace inside Europe beyond the borders of the existing member states – in the Balkans, the eastern neighbourhood, even Turkey. The EU faces growing in instability in its southern neighbourhood – in Syria and Lebanon, North Africa, Iran.  And it is struggling to redefine its relations with the new superpowers and to recast the Transatlantic alliance for the 21st century.

It is precisely because we are entering a world where Europe does not feel like it will be the centre of the universe that the EU is important. That is why it is so worthwhile to invest in strengthening the EU for the future rather than being complicit in its emaciation. Today’s prize should remind us that this is no time to allow a return to the politics of “beggar thy neighbour” narrow parochialism.

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