DEC 10 — In October, when it was announced that the European Union had been awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, there were both cheers and jeers.
For supporters of the EU, it was a much-needed affirmation of its achievements and a timely reminder of the fact that the EU is not just about the euro and economics, but is fundamentally a political project to achieve peace and reconciliation.
For the detractors, it was a cruel joke by the Norwegians (who have twice rejected joining the EU) — the timing was particularly off, with the EU mired in economic crisis and increasing social tensions as austerity began to bite in several of those debt-ridden countries. The spirit of solidarity that was supposed to underpin the European integration project was particularly in short supply at a time when it was most needed.
I appreciate the first point of view but also, to a certain degree, empathise with the second. Let me explain why.
A PROJECT OF PEACE
The EU, which had its beginning in 1952 as the European Coal and Steel Community, was a determined effort by visionary leaders such as Monnet, Schuman and Adenauer of France and Germany that never again should the two continental powers go to war. What better way to reflect this resolve than to have an independent authority to oversee the production and set the price of the two key resources needed for war-making.
European integration has since then deepened and widened. From the integration of coal and steel, the EU is now a single market of over 500 million consumers; from six founding members, it has grown to a union of 27, soon to be 28 when Croatia becomes a member next year.
Besides the achievement of the historical reconciliation of France and Germany, such that war between the two is now inconceivable, the EU has also successfully integrated many of the former Central and Eastern European communist countries and the Baltic states (who were part of the Soviet Empire) after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Seen against what is happening in Asia now, with the rising tensions over sovereignty claims in the South and East China seas and the inability of Japan and China to achieve that sort of historical reconciliation needed for long-lasting peace and stability in East Asia, the achievements of the EU in the last 60 years are indeed remarkable.
CYNICISM AND A CROSSROADS
Unfortunately, this historical narrative of the EU as a peace project no longer resonates among younger Europeans, as a survey of Europeans in the 15-to-30 age group in 2007 revealed. When asked about the meaning of the EU and what EU citizenship means, the majority of the young Europeans surveyed associated the EU with the freedom to travel, study and work anywhere in the EU, the protection of the rights of citizens and a means of improving the economic situation in Europe.
It is thus perfectly understandable when some people express cynicism at the peace prize being awarded to the EU at a time when unemployment is at a record high and social peace is “threatened” with strikes and demonstrations against the austerity measures adopted by several governments in the name of reform and as part of the conditions of the bailout package.
The European Union is coming to an important crossroads in its integration process. In the history of the European integration project, optimists have noted that with each crisis the EU faced, it has emerged stronger and more integrated.
Similarly, there are hopes that in the midst of the ongoing debt crisis, decisive steps may yet be taken to prepare the EU for the next stage of the journey to a deeper union.
The crisis has forced Europeans to embrace painful reforms and accept a fiscal compact put in place to focus the attention of member states on achieving fiscal consolidation and budgetary rigour. Talks on a banking union have also begun.
All these are signs that the EU is determined to pursue reforms to strengthen the EU and the euro zone.
Yet, despite the various efforts by the EU to stabilise the euro zone, detractors continue to express doubts on the feasibility and desirability of deeper integration, given what they see as a lack of political will and public support for further integration.
IN NEED OF A NEW NARRATIVE
So what is the road ahead for the EU and what has the Nobel Peace Prize got to do with this?
The EU is in need of a new narrative. The Nobel Peace Prize reaffirms the EU as a peace project. But peace and the EU to a generation that has only enjoyed peace and affluence have a different meaning altogether.
It no longer means just the absence of war. Peace here needs to be seen in a broader context of social peace, freedom and economic security. In an increasingly globalised and inter-connected world, the EU alone can no longer guarantee this broader version of peace.
Economic insecurity and inequalities in the face of increasing economic competition from other regions is a reality the EU has to face up to and which can only be mitigated by stepping up engagement with the outside world and working in tandem with other regions towards a global rebalancing.
Youths in any other regions aspire for the same kind of peace that Europeans have taken for granted. To re-ignite hopes in the future, the EU and all its partners need to step up to prepare its peoples for the challenges and opportunities brought about by our interdependence.
And they need to refrain from short-sighted knee-jerk reactions towards economic nationalism and from building walls - both physical and psychological - to shield themselves from the challenges. — Today
* Yeo Lay Hwee is director of the EU Centre in Singapore and Senior Research Fellow with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs.
* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.