The Nobel decision was a brave defence of the European project

The Peace Prize was a reminder that the EU has been a force for good and remains a bulwark against further suffering.

The committee responsible for awarding the Nobel Peace Prize is a close-knit Norwegian elite, and we will probably never know exactly how it arrived at its decision to award the 2012 prize to the European Union. But we can guess.

At the heart of the process must have been Thorbjorn Jagland, the current secretary general of the Council of Europe and a former Norwegian prime minister. He has been chairman of the Nobel Peace Prize committee since 2009, with considerable sway over its deliberations. In 1990 he wrote a book called My European Dream, which argued for Norway’s accession to the EU, and in 2008 he specifically advocated that the EU should win the Nobel Peace Prize. I think we can safely assume that Jagland was instrumental in making this happen.

Some may be scratching their heads at the apparent absurdity of the decision and, admittedly, it does seem a bit odd. Why award the prize this year of all years? With each wave of the euro crisis, southern Europeans’ livelihoods hang in the balance. The social contract in Greece and Spain has all but disintegrated, principally owing to failures at the EU elite level. This has left space for dangerous and, in some cases, violent populist forces to emerge. Throughout the crisis, two of the EU’s three main institutions – the Parliament and the Commission – have been sidelined, making a mockery of the European project. And public trust in the EU is hitting new lows.

But perhaps these are precisely the reasons why this decision was made, and why it has the touch of genius about it. Jagland cares about the European project, and he is using his unique position to make a brave defence of it. Amidst all the recent bad news, it is easy to forget how the EU has been a force for good in the past and remains a bulwark against further suffering in the future. The Nobel Peace Prize could be seen as partly a lifetime achievement award and partly a confidence-boosting recognition of its potential.

It must have taken an extraordinary amount of effort to persuade the conservative members of the committee to go with this choice. Perhaps it should be seen as a triumph and a call to arms for those committed to increased European integration and co-operation. Earlier this year, the New Statesman's political editor Rafael Behr wrote that those in Britain who are broadly Europhile need to start exercising the arguments in favour. Since then, a referendum on Britain’s membership has become even more likely. Jagland has attempted to do what few politicians in Europe – let alone sceptical Britain – have yet dared, which is to make the case for renewed faith in the European project. Perhaps it is time for others to follow suit.

William Brett is a PhD candidate at UCL and a research assistant at the Centre for Financial Analysis & Policy.

EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso speaks after the EU was awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. Photograph: Getty Images.
Getty
Show Hide image

The deafening killer - why noise will be the next great pollution scandal

A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. 

Our cities are being poisoned by a toxin that surrounds us day and night. It eats away at our brains, hurts our hearts, clutches at our sleep, and gnaws at the quality of our daily lives.

Hardly a silent killer, it gets short shrift compared to the well-publicised terrors of air pollution and sugars food. It is the dull, thumping, stultifying drum-beat of perpetual noise.

The score that accompanies city life is brutal and constant. It disrupts the everyday: The coffee break ruined by the screech of a line of double decker buses braking at the lights. The lawyer’s conference call broken by drilling as she makes her way to the office. The writer’s struggle to find a quiet corner to pen his latest article.

For city-dwellers, it’s all-consuming and impossible to avoid. Construction, traffic, the whirring of machinery, the neighbour’s stereo. Even at home, the beeps and buzzes made by washing machines, fridges, and phones all serve to distract and unsettle.

But the never-ending noisiness of city life is far more than a problem of aesthetics. A growing body of evidence shows that noise can have serious health impacts too. Recent studies have linked noise pollution to hearing loss, sleep deprivation, hypertension, heart disease, brain development, and even increased risk of dementia.

One research team compared families living on different stories of the same building in Manhattan to isolate the impact of noise on health and education. They found children in lower, noisier floors were worse at reading than their higher-up peers, an effect that was most pronounced for children who had lived in the building for longest.

Those studies have been replicated for the impact of aircraft noise with similar results. Not only does noise cause higher blood pressure and worsens quality of sleep, it also stymies pupils trying to concentrate in class.

As with many forms of pollution, the poorest are typically the hardest hit. The worst-off in any city often live by busy roads in poorly-insulated houses or flats, cheek by jowl with packed-in neighbours.

The US Department of Transport recently mapped road and aircraft noise across the United States. Predictably, the loudest areas overlapped with some of the country’s most deprived. Those included the south side of Atlanta and the lowest-income areas of LA and Seattle.

Yet as noise pollution grows in line with road and air traffic and rising urban density, public policy has turned a blind eye.

Council noise response services, formally a 24-hour defence against neighbourly disputes, have fallen victim to local government cuts. Decisions on airport expansion and road development pay scant regard to their audible impact. Political platforms remain silent on the loudest poison.

This is odd at a time when we have never had more tools at our disposal to deal with the issue. Electric Vehicles are practically noise-less, yet noise rarely features in the arguments for their adoption. Just replacing today’s bus fleet would transform city centres; doing the same for taxis and trucks would amount to a revolution.

Vehicles are just the start. Millions were spent on a programme of “Warm Homes”; what about “Quiet Homes”? How did we value the noise impact in the decision to build a third runway at Heathrow, and how do we compensate people now that it’s going ahead?

Construction is a major driver of decibels. Should builders compensate “noise victims” for over-drilling? Or could regulation push equipment manufacturers to find new ways to dampen the sound of their kit?

Of course, none of this addresses the noise pollution we impose on ourselves. The bars and clubs we choose to visit or the music we stick in our ears. Whether pumping dance tracks in spin classes or indie rock in trendy coffee shops, people’s desire to compensate for bad noise out there by playing louder noise in here is hard to control for.

The Clean Air Act of 1956 heralded a new era of city life, one where smog and grime gave way to clear skies and clearer lungs. That fight still goes on today.

But some day, we will turn our attention to our clogged-up airwaves. The decibels will fall. #Twitter will give way to twitter. And every now and again, as we step from our homes into city life, we may just hear the sweetest sound of all. Silence.

Adam Swersky is a councillor in Harrow and is cabinet member for finance. He writes in a personal capacity.