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October 25, 2012

A just reward

This editorial first appeared in Research Europe 352, 25.10.12.

The EU’s Nobel peace prize couldn’t be more timely

Much ridicule has been poured onto the collective heads of the Norwegian Nobel committee for its decision on 12 October to award the 2012 Nobel peace prize to the EU. But it is the detractors of the award who are making themselves look ridiculous.

The award is in fact timely. In the face of the great difficulties now facing the Eurozone, the lessons of the past are at risk of being forgotten. The EU richly deserves this prize for one, overarching achievement alone: for excising the ghosts of 20th-century Europe and rendering war between France and Germany unthinkable.

Those who ridicule the award point to recent demonstrations in Athens and Madrid as evidence for their position, but they seem to hold a peculiarly myopic view of recent history. It almost beggars belief to compare a few violent protests with tens of millions of deaths in two world wars.

At least people in the rest of the world are aware of the EU’s achievements. On page 8 of this issue, we report on the tentative moves being made by Japan to build multilateral scientific collaboration with its neighbours. Europeans may sometimes express frustration, but compared with, say, Asia or Latin America, European research has already achieved a remarkable degree of communication and common purpose.

The Nobel peace prize comes at a time when the very concept of the EU is under concerted political attack, not just from the extremes of left and right but from centrist politicians who ought to know better, such as UK Prime Minister David Cameron. Earlier this week, Cameron got into a fight with his only remaining possible best friend, Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, after issuing a churlish threat to veto the EU budget for 2014-20.

Only days before, he suggested the EU saved money by thinning out its most experienced officials. And remarkably, he lectured the European Commission’s small administrative staff by referring to the UK example: “16 per cent of employees in the Commission earn over €100,000. What we have done in Britain is crack down on central administration, on costs and on the numbers of people employed, to release money for things that are more important.” But two weeks earlier, the costs of this thinning process was amply demonstrated. A multi-billion-pound bidding process for Britain’s railway system collapsed, after it emerged that the civil servants had made a hash of the figures. The scandal was a crushing indictment of what has befallen the once-proud UK civil service.

One of the lamest criticisms of the peace award is that the EU will struggle to agree who should collect it. But decisions arrived at by consensus are part of the very strength of a union—a fact that Cameron, now head of a coalition government, well knows.

Criticising the Nobel peace prize is nothing new. The prize was famously attacked when Henry Kissinger got it in 1973. And more recently, the award to President Obama was premature. However, the 2012 prize reflects well on the Norwegian Nobel committee­—and on everyone who, during the past half-century, has worked to build a Europe that is safer and more peaceful than any sane observer of the half-century before that could ever have thought possible.

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