How pooling coal and steel led to Nobel Peace Prize

Tue, Dec 11, 2012, 00:00

Opinion:Yesterday saw the Nobel Peace Prize awarded for the 93rd time since 1901. The recipient this year was the European Union: the prize – reflecting the union’s rather idiosyncratic constitutional architecture – was received jointly by no less than three “presidents” – namely, European Council president Herman van Rompuy, European Commission president José Manuel Barroso and European Parliament president Martin Schulz.

Most EU leaders attended, including Taoiseach Enda Kenny. The times being what they are, however, the award was not entirely free of controversy. British Eurosceptics in particular derided it, and David Cameron noticeably failed to join his fellow leaders in Oslo.

Indeed a small group of perhaps 1,000 protesters gathered in the Norwegian capital. Critics attacked EU economic policies, arms exports by EU member countries and an alleged lack of support for Palestinians.

The Nobel committee has certainly made some unusual decisions in awarding the six prizes under its control. Famously, the Nobel Prize for Literature was never awarded to James Joyce. It was, however, given to such unlikely candidates as Winston Churchill and Pearl S Buck. Reputedly, the committee even seriously considered awarding it to Margaret Mitchell, author of Gone With the Wind.

Some awards of the Nobel Peace Prize have been equally eye-catching. Henry Kissinger, who received the prize in 1973, had played a key role in the illegal 1969-1970 carpet-bombing of Cambodia that was to lead directly (if, in fairness, inadvertently) to the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime seizing power there.

A surprised US president Barack Obama received the award in 2009 when barely a few months in office. Menachim Begin, deservedly jointly awarded the prize in 1979, subsequently ordered the invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The peace prize, also deservedly awarded to Martin Luther King and later, to John Hume, was never given to Mahatma Gandhi, even though he inspired them both.

Fallible body

The message from some at least of these decisions is that Nobel committees are fallible and get things wrong.

But what of the EU’s award? Was this justified? In fairness, it may not be easy to see a peace project at first glance in looking at the EU – an organisation that began life in 1951 as a plan to pool coal and steel production and has only gradually snowballed into wider areas of economic and non-economic activities ever since.

Moreover, the kernel of the EU’s activities remains clearly economic in nature – which again seems an improbable core activity for an entity supposedly concerned with peace. In fact, however, peace has always had a prominent place on the EU menu. This can be seen in the EU’s 1950 birth certificate – the Schuman Declaration – which opened with the words “world peace cannot be safeguarded without the making of creative efforts proportionate to the dangers which threaten it” and continued, “the contribution which an organised and living Europe can bring to civilisation is indispensable to the maintenance of peaceful relations . . . A united Europe was not achieved and we had war.”

The original idea of what is now the EU was highly ambitious. It was to replace economic rivalry with co-operation (reflecting very real mutual economic interdependence). That, in turn, would prevent political rivalry. And that, in turn, would prevent military rivalry and war.

Sheer political necessity, however, guaranteed that this grandiose process had to start small. European integration thus began as regional (originally comprising a mere six states compared to 27 today), sectoral (only gradually expanding its competences first beyond coal and steel and then beyond economic concerns) and gradualist (with each slow, painful step of integration driven by the realisation that not taking it left member states worse off).

Member states had other agendas too – the French needed to secure access to German Ruhrgebiet coal and steel, and the Germans needed to regain full access to the community of nations. But for all that, the creation of what is now the EU was undoubtedly driven by memories of world wars begun in Europe and reflected in the very choice of coal and steel production as a place to begin integrating – since co-operation here made war-making impossible.

The Nobel committee’s citation referred not only to the contribution of the EU to Franco-German reconciliation however, but also to its consolidating of democracy in recent dictatorships – Spain, Portugal, Greece and the former Soviet bloc. The citation also mentioned the EU’s role in stabilising the Balkans.

In fact, as this would suggest, the EU’s usefulness in peace promotion within Europe is multifaceted. For the eastern European states in particular, situated along vulnerable geopolitical fault lines as always, membership of the EU has defused border conflicts.

Structure and security

Further, the EU has helped provide and will provide a structured and secure economic haven for what would otherwise be more vulnerable small states which have been produced by the break-up of a large state. The Czech and Slovak republics are one example. The ex-Yugoslav republics are another, and it is far from inconceivable that Scotland might some day come within this category. Even the single European market has a “peace” aspect to it, in that as the experience of the Weimar Republic shows, economic travails are not without military implications.

It is far from unusual to award the Nobel Peace Prize to an organisation: in fact, as well as its 100 individual recipients, the prize has now been awarded to no fewer than 21 organisations (with the International Committee of the Red Cross winning it three times and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees receiving it twice). On the other hand, the EU is an organisation unlike any other, involving a much greater level of integration. Not a state, it has nonetheless acquired and continues to acquire some state-like characteristics.

For this reason, if no other, it might have been thought better – had it occurred to the Nobel committee in time – to have awarded the prize in the 1950s to one of the many individuals involved in the foundation of the process of integration such as Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer or Jean Monnet. Nobody would think of awarding a Nobel prize to a state, after all. That is a minor enough cavil, however.

Overall, the Nobel committee got it right on this occasion.

Dr Gavin Barrett is a senior lecturer in the school of law, UCD, specialising in the law of the European Union

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