The Nobel peace prize awarded to the European Union is recognition of the historic triumph of democratic solidarity over ideologies based on narrow nationalism, jingoism and militarism. Small wonder that Friday’s announcement has been received with derision and scorn by Eurosceptic and far-right forces that have stoked popular fears over the bloc’s enlargement into Eastern Europe. In the face of record unemployment and crippling austerity, the honour must be read no less as an appeal to the EU’s current leadership to live up to the original promise of promoting peace and prosperity among its people. The EU deserves credit for helping keep the peace in a continent that has been responsible for more death and bloodshed than any other in the world. But its current policies are responsible for an austerity drive so intense that it threatens the disintegration of the European project. Europe’s statesmen of the post-war generation endeavoured to institutionalise the principles of democratic reconciliation, respect for human rights and the rule of law within and between nations. These values form the bedrock of the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights and the EU. Few would dispute that a response to today’s resurgent nationalist extremism and religious fundamentalism globally must ultimately draw upon and build on these principles.

Europe’s visionaries were also shrewd enough to recognise that solidarity among countries could not be sustained without material prosperity for their people. This understanding led to the pooling of Franco-German coal and steel resources and the steady removal of trade and customs tariffs between France, Germany, Italy and the Benelux countries. These visionary steps were precursors to the single market, the Schengen borderless area and the single currency. Whether they say so or not, most regional trading blocs around the world are attempts to replicate more or less the European model. To be sure, the EU’s record in the defence and promotion of human rights and democracy has been less than creditable since 9/11. Key EU states refused to endorse the illegal American invasion of Iraq but the willingness of many European countries to assist in the kidnapping and ‘rendition’ of terror suspects by the United States has exposed them to the charge of double standards and hypocrisy. A more scrupulous adherence to norms would be no less in the bloc’s own interest considering its enlargement into the Balkans where democratic institution-building remains a challenge. The EU has much work to do still to be truly worthy of the Nobel prize for peace. It should not sit on its laurels. For a globalised world has much at stake in the success of European integration.

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