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12 October 2012

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.

By William Brett

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.

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