The EU deserves the Nobel for democracy push

Gwynne Dyer says the list of recent winners makes clear the Peace Prize is a misnomer today

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 October, 2012, 4:05am

Maybe they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union because they couldn't think of anybody else. Nelson Mandela already has one. So does Aung San Suu Kyi. Even Barack Obama has one, though what for is not exactly clear. So who's left? We'll just give it to the EU. Nobody will notice that.

But they did notice, and some of them were not amused. "A Nobel prize for the EU at a time Brussels and all of Europe is collapsing in misery? What next? An Oscar for [European Council president Herman] Van Rompuy?" asked Geert Wilders, the Dutch Eurosceptic.

And France's Le Monde newspaper asked: "But who will go to Oslo for the EU to receive the Nobel Peace Prize? As trivial as it may seem, the question raises [the legitimacy] of an entity … whose institutional stops and starts and lack of democratic representation are regularly criticised."

The EU was an elite project from the start, and policy for the 27-member union is still set mostly by politicians and officials, not citizens.

However, don't throw the baby out with the bathwater. The original purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize was to honour people who worked to put an end to the terrible wars that have repeatedly devastated the European continent (and much of the rest of the world as well). The EU has made a major contribution to that task, but that is not its greatest achievement.

The great virtue of the EU, despite its "democratic deficit" at the Brussels level, is that all its member countries must be fully democratic, relatively uncorrupt and fully observant of civil and human rights. Not only has this prevented some members from backsliding into intolerance and authoritarianism in times of great stress; it has also been a huge incentive for prospective members to clean up their act.

Would Greece, Spain and Portugal all have ended up as full democracies after overthrowing their old dictators, if not for the changes they had to make to qualify for EU membership?

Would the ex-communist countries of central Europe that emerged from the long night of Soviet tyranny in 1989 have created modern civil societies without a great deal of aid from the EU? Would they even have bothered, without the incentive of future EU membership?

The Nobel Peace Prize is a misnomer. It should actually be the Nobel Democracy and Human Rights Prize. Occasionally it goes to some person or organisation whose main purpose is building international peace, but more often it goes to people like Mandela, Suu Kyi and Liu Xiaobo, whose accomplishment, or at least goal, has been to make their own countries democratic and respectful of human rights.

And if that is the criterion, the EU truly does deserve the prize.

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist