The EU’s Nobel Prize: A Kinder, Gentler Great Power?

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize is doled out today in Oslo. The Nobel Commitee’s decision to award this year’s prize to the European Union created some controversy amongst the chattering classes in Oslo. That is not unusual – each autumn, ringing endorsements and condemnations of the Committee’s decision clutter the ether up here at the end of the fjord.

But this time the Committee’s decision seems to have touched a nerve, prompting demonstrations yesterday and today both for and against the award. On the surface, this mobilization may seem odd: after all, Norwegians have twice rejected EU membership in referenda, the polls have shown no sign of support for membership in recent years and the leader of the pro-EU movement recently conceded defeat, announcing they were shutting down efforts to lobby in favour of membership.

So why the upset?

In part because the No-to-EU faction smells a rat: the chairman of the Nobel Committee, Thorbjørn Jagland, is a former Labour Party Prime Minister who led the pro-EU forces in the last referendum in 1994. He is also the present head of the Council of Europe. Many Norwegians wonder how it is possible for Jagland to have, in effect, given the peace prize to his own pet political project (or to himself, as some have joked).

Those who have supported the decision insist it is not completely bizarre: the EU started out as a peace project, a project of economnic integration between France and Germany predicated on the notion that such integration would mitigate against a return to war. As far off as that may seem to many today, the prospect of war in Europe cannot be dismissed, at least not if history is any indication.

Researcher Per Martin Norheim-Martinsen, a colleague at the Fafo Institute in Oslo, has just published an important book on the EU as a strategic actor. He notes that the development of the Common Foreign and Security Policy has seen the EU launch over twenty missions, most of them civilian and of a far less interventionist bent than NATO. Norheim-Martinsen is clear about the failures of the CFSP and suggests the EU is punching well below its weight when it comes to promoting democracy and stability in its ‘near abroad’ (not least in the Middle East and North Africa where the EU has been adrift for some time now).

But for the Norwegian opponents to EU membership the real problem is what they perceive as an attempt to use the peace prize to rescue the reputation of the EU at precisely the moment when it is at its nadir. And that plays into a growing political debate in Norway about re-visiting the agreement on the European Economic Area (EEA), to which Norway, Switzerland and Iceland all belong. Long viewed as providing the benefits of economic integration without the necessity of political membership, for many on the Norwegian left the EEA has become an increasinly intrusive obstacle to protecting collective agreements and fighting social dumping. For others, the move to challenge the EEA is evidence of leftist protectionism, an anti-integrationist sentiment that could threaten the peace project at the heart of the EU.

What the debates have failed to make clear is the extent to which the integrationist project of the EU has long since lost most of its progressive character. An EU that was once a manifesation of post-war statist (almost social democratic) success has in recent decades come to be dominated by neo-liberal failure and austerity.

How did we get here, or more to the point why have we not changed course? Part of the answer to that question is told by The Brussels Business: Who Runs the EU? a documentary directed by Matthieu Lietaert and Friedrich Moser, which I reviewed for the Spring edition of DOX, the European documentary magazine.

For the past forty years, economic policy has been dominated by neo-liberal assumptions that have dictated trade integration, liberalization of domestic markets, de-regulation of industry, flexibility of labour markets and generally the withdrawal of the state from economic regulation. This is not news.

What has been less clear – and what is vital to understanding the failures of European decision-making in the present crisis – is how these policies came to dominate the minds of European politicians. Neo-liberal ideology was victorious early on in the Anglo-Saxon economies of the U.S. and U.K. and then exported around the globe via international institutions, bilateral investment agreements and in some cases by the “disaster capitalism” described by Naomi Klein. But in Europe neo-liberalism was delivered up to decision-makers by well organized lobbies of business interests operating as a trans-national club of industrialists.

By describing the evolution of lobbying in and around the institutions of the EU, The Brussels Business does far more than just explain lobbying. The film makes a convincing argument that lobbying is central to understanding how and why the EU peace project of statist economic integration became captive to neo-liberal market-driven agenda. In the process, the film gives us a vital lesson in the history of how Europe arrived at the crisis in which it finds itself today.

For those Europeans on the right and the left who despise the EU for its democratic deficit and remoteness, the film will confirm their worst fears. For those progressives who still believe the EU could be a vehicle for social solidarity and economic progress, this film should be mandatory viewing; because The Brussels Business makes clear that, in the absence of a well-organized grassroots counter-force to the interests of business, a belief in the ability of political and economic institutions of the EU to deliver progress is simply delusional.

And in this lies probably the most imporant lesson the Nobel committee failed to draw in awarding the peace prize to the EU: as long as the institutions of the EU serve to undermine the social foundations of Europe’s economy and politics, they will be taking us towards conflict, not away from war.


Imgage: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout