After the announcement that the European Union (EU) would be awarded the Nobel peace prize, most European leaders made gracious statements of acceptance and approval. Most Europeans on the other hand, seemed a little confused.
Since the announcement there has been much debate on the merits and faults of the EU and the Nobel committee. A better approach might be to analyse what Europeans can gain from the prize in real terms.
First, it gives some perspective. European commentators and citizens have had the chance to analyse their "peace project", not just from the current lens of austerity and crisis, but the whole 60 years. Reflections on the bigger picture of the EU and its potential, rather than self-congratulatory messages or the focus on the eurozone crisis, is also needed at the highest level of European leadership.
Second, it encourages Europeans to understand the EU. As commentators have pointed to their favourite or least favourite part of the EU they have to actually describe what it does.
Generalizations had to be put aside. The tapestry of institutions, policies and member states is vast and forms in different constellations depending on the issue. EU outreach and engagement should help citizens understand this multiplicity, not confuse them further.
Third, it allows for an analysis of achievements. Much of the response to the announcement questions the timing. Yes, it feels like a Nordic pep-talk from the side lines during a time of crisis, but a better question is why didn't this happen sooner? It is about time there was some collective recognition for a multitude of steps, from post-Cold War uncertainty to the ‘big bang' enlargement from Maastricht to Lisbon. This should also lead to more confidence on the global stage. The EU's common foreign policy was spurred on by a disjointed European response to the Balkan conflicts. Since then there have been 28 joint security missions and the bloc remains a global leader in development and humanitarian assistance.
When these three elements—perspective, ownership and achievements—are lined up, there are clearer possibilities as to what the legacy of the prize might be.
While celebrating the achievements of the past 60 years there needs to be a new narrative for the next 60. "Peace project" terminology is outdated. Enlargement and the ability of the EU to unite a continent torn apart by war is no longer the defining story. Those are strong and essential foundations, but the future of the EU will not be defined by its ability to bring warring nations together but its capacity to speak to younger generations who do not think in terms of peace and war, but mobility, education and opportunity.
Social conflict within countries has increased under economic pressure, and the eurozone crisis has caused great mistrust within Europe. This mistrust also encompasses the decision-making in Brussels. The traditional "compromise" method is good for the daily grind of EU business, but during times of crisis is bypassed. Decisions are pushed further up the political food chain, making them less open for scrutiny and further from citizens. At the same time as the "normal" business of EU governance is obscured by crisis summits, there must be a more robust response when principles of equality and rights are under threat. There are times for slow compromise and others for strong and quick reactions. The EU has to work harder at defending its standards while opening itself up to scrutiny.
The European Commission's president, José Manuel Barroso, noted that the award shows “hope and confidence” in the EU project. This should not be something we have to import. A renewed narrative, more accountable governance and effective protection of what has taken 60 years to build—this would be the real dividend from the peace prize.
This article was originally published by the European Voice.