Dan Gardner: European peace is a prize-worthy achievement

Ottawa Citizen


The long and successful project to bring peace to Europe is one of the greatest achievements in modern human history. That fact is indisputable. And it is seldom spoken plainly.

So while it’s undoubtedly true that the awarding of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is a political statement inspired by current circumstances – as the awarding of the peace prize so often is – that is no reason to dismiss it as nothing more than a stunt.

The prize is more than justified, and welcome, because it provides an opportunity to say what is plainly true.

When the Second World War ended a mere 67 years ago, much of Europe was rubble.

The devastation of two cataclysmic slaughters separated by a catastrophic depression was so profound it could even be seen in demographic charts: Instead of neatly symmetrical pyramids of men and women, stacked in cohorts, they were unbalanced, as if limbs had been severed.

Those limbs were whole generations of young men, gone. Europe was mutilated.

Wise men feared the horror wasn’t finished.

“In our recent history, war has been following war in ascending order of intensity,” observed the British historian Arnold Toynbee. “And today it is already apparent that the war of 1939-45 was not the climax of this crescendo movement.”

Albert Einstein agreed. So did H.G. Wells, the legendary science fiction writer whose once-optimistic vision of the future had withered as Europe descended deeper into the 20th century. “The end of everything we call life is close at hand and cannot be evaded,” he moaned.

Rubble, blood and fear: That was Europe when the great European project began.

It started with discussions. It moved on to negotiations. Agreements. Treaties.

The European Union’s ancestor is the European Coal and Steel Community of 1951. It was nothing more than a six-nation common market in coal and steel. More talks followed, more negotiations, agreements and treaties.

Each modest step was intended to bring the nations of Europe a little closer together, to make them a little more dependent on each other. The goal, as French foreign minister Robert Schuman famously said, was to make “war not only unthinkable but materially impossible.”

And so it progressed. More talks. More negotiations. More treaties. More countries joining.

It was never glamorous or exciting work, and if you read Tony Judt’s Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 you will quickly realize that the wars and empires that preceded the European project make for much more entertaining history.

But it succeeded. From Portugal to Bulgaria and Finland, a continent that had for centuries been ravaged by the movement of armies now experiences only the free movement of goods, services and people – and war is both unthinkable and materially impossible, as Schuman had dreamed.

And all in 67 years. What a magnificent achievement.

But rather than applaud the European Union’s Nobel Peace Prize, some prefer to scoff and snigger.

Europe is in the midst of a fiscal crisis thanks to what most now agree was the premature creation of the euro. Greece is a mess. So is Spain. Italy and others aren’t much better off. Europe’s list of problems and deficiencies is very long, indeed.

Isn’t it silly to praise Europe for anything? And why is merely not going to war considered an accomplishment? There has been no war between Canada and the United States since the War of 1812. Maybe we should get the peace prize?

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