In its early years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee displayed a touching faith in something called the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a forum for exchange among parliamentarians of various, mostly European, countries. I am informed by no less a source than Wikipedia that Nobel Peace Prize winners associated with the IPU included Frédéric Passy in 1901; Charles Albert Gobat in 1903; Fredrik Bajer in 1908; Auguste Marie François Beernaert in 1909; and Henri La Fontaine in 1913, after which Europe spiralled into half a decade of carnage in which 16 million people were slaughtered in conditions of inconceivable savagery and squalor. (The 127th Assembly of the IPU will be held in Quebec City later this month. Should we be worried?)
Undaunted, the Nobel committee gave the Nobel for peace to IPU members in 1921 and 1927. World War II seems to have durably dulled the Nobel jury’s admiration for European summitry; in recent years the committee has preferred undeniable worthies (Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi); well-meaning functionaries who were overwhelmed by events (Mikhail Gorbachev); prominent members of the U.S. Democratic Party (Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Barack Obama); and at least one Republican (Henry Kissinger).
So we can probably chalk today’s announcement that the Nobel for peace will go to “the European Union” — fully 61 years after the creation of the EU’s ancestor association, the European Coal and Steel Community — up to a laudable skepticism on the Nobel committee’s part. It was best to wait and see whether the EU would work out. If only the jury had shown similar restraint before giving Obama the prize. Indeed, the Nobel committee could well be accused of foot-dragging. The heyday of European construction, the transition from an intentionally technocratic to a more overtly political project, was the 1950s and 1960s. The greatest declaration that European construction had provided a durable alternative to war was made by Mitterrand and Kohl at Verdun in 1984. The Union’s largest expansion came in 2004, when most of the old Warsaw Pact countries joined the union of their former enemies, not just willingly but with widespread (although never unanimous) joy.
Celebrating the EU for anything these days amounts to buying in after the top of the market, but giving the award to fully 7.4% of the world’s population makes a kind of sense. First, the award goes to living recipients, and the masterminds of European construction — Jean Monnet, Robert Schuman, Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi — died long ago without recompense from the Nobel jury. Second, of course, the EU is going through a rough patch and could probably use a pick-me-up. The Nobel offers some handy perspective, if anyone wants to take it: on Twitter this morning someone pointed out what they apparently thought was the irony that, on the day the prize is announced, unemployment in Greece is 25%. Well, yeah: on the continent that saw Dieppe and Passchendaele, Katyn and Treblinka, 25% unemployment is a pretty good day at the office.
A few weeks ago the foreign ministers of 11 European countries published their suggestions for getting out of what is sometimes called the Euro crisis. Seventy years ago their predecessors were drafting and executing plans to slaughter one another’s populations by the tens of millions. The definition of “crisis” has changed beyond recognition. That’s worth a prize.