Global Viewpoint

EUC Director Bryan Endres discusses the European Union winning the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize

Craig Chamberlain
10/22/2012  8:00 am

Not everyone celebrated the recent announcement that the 27-nation European Union had been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which most often goes to individuals. Given its ongoing debt crisis, political infighting and debt-related upheaval in member countries such as Greece and Spain, many skeptics reacted to the news with ridicule and humor. So why the award, and why now? Bryan Endres, the director of the European Union Center and a professor of agricultural law at Illinois, discussed the award and the reaction in an interview with News Bureau social sciences editor Craig Chamberlain.

What do you understand about the Nobel committee’s reasoning in naming the EU for this year’s peace prize?

The Nobel Peace Prize ideally recognizes people or institutions who have created or provided substantial support for peace, broadly defined. This is a challenging task because peace is a subjective concept, and the selection by the Nobel committee is often viewed through a political lens. In light of the current financial crisis that has raised questions, both internally and abroad, about the future of the euro currency and the European Union, there has been a predictably skeptical response to the EU’s prize.

This is not the first Nobel Peace Prize controversy, of course. When the committee selected President Obama for the award in 2009, many thought that he had not yet accomplished enough for such a prestigious award. Regardless, the Nobel committee decided that the decades of peace on a continent that had been plagued by centuries of conflict provided a sufficient reason to award the EU the prize.

How would you make the case for the EU getting this honor?

The EU has facilitated the ability of 27 member countries to put behind them centuries of conflict. Old enemies now cooperate and the 17 in the eurozone share a common currency. Economic cooperation has led to political cooperation. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the EU encouraged Eastern European countries to reject communism and choose democracy. All EU member states must uphold certain human and minority rights.

The significant, although hopefully temporary, financial problems in the eurozone are unlikely to negate long-standing peace in Europe. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize will hopefully reinvigorate those who have started to forget the underlying rationale of the EU since its inception in the post-World War II 1950s – ensuring a peaceful Europe.

Given its inability to resolve an ongoing debt crisis, some Americans could be forgiven for seeing the EU as now dysfunctional and possibly better off dissolved. What do we need to know that might put the current situation into perspective?

Political motives have shaped the formation of the EU more so than economic reasons, despite the EU being first and foremost an economic institution. The origin of the EU – the European Coal and Steel Community – was a political mechanism to unite France and Germany and prevent future wars through the coordinated control of two key inputs for militarization: coal and steel. Similarly, Germany backed the creation of the euro in part to demonstrate that a post-Cold War unified Germany was not a threat to a peaceful Europe.

The EU ranks maintaining peace as its number one goal. At this point, there would be tremendous negative financial consequences if the euro were abolished and the EU dissolved. Despite the financial crisis, the EU continues to be the world’s largest economy and the largest trading partner of the U.S.

Despite the economic conflicts, it is hard to imagine a repeat of the world wars that devastated Europe in the first half of the 20th century. Should we give the EU much of the credit?

The EU has certainly played a role in deterring major wars from occurring in Europe. The effects of war in Europe would cause severe negative impacts in trade and most likely end the common market. Another important factor in maintaining peace in Europe, of course, is NATO. Bear in mind, NATO headquarters is a 10-minute bus ride from the EU institutions in Brussels. This is a close partnership, which makes an armed conflict among EU member states improbable. Although some critics of the EU’s peace prize have said that NATO deserves the award instead, the political and economic integration made possible through the EU deserves a tremendous amount of credit.