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.
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.