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Europe at peace

Published: October 13, 2012 | 8:05 am
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A Nobel Prize for leaving wars behind

In Greece, the news Friday that the Nobel committee had awarded the 2012 peace prize to the European Union was greeted with disbelief and fury. A spokesman for the chief opposition party, which rejects the economic austerity demanded by Germany, protested that “we are experiencing what really is a war situation on a daily basis.”

The person who said that apparently has no conception of what war is truly like. It’s not about budget cuts and unemployment. It’s about ruthless conquest, mass slaughter and bottomless agony.

Such complaints actually validate this award. Most Europeans have no acquaintance with the oceans of blood spilled in two world wars and numerous smaller conflicts in the preceding decades. Most Greeks can’t remember when Hitler’s troops invaded their country, bringing terror, mass murder and starvation. They probably can’t even imagine such things.

Europe, once the site of virulent nationalism and perpetual strife, has become synonymous with peace and multilateralism. Borders are open. Armies that once fought without quarter operate under a common command. Instead of marching on Paris, Germans drive there for weekend vacations.

In 2003 neoconservative Robert Kagan, resentful of our NATO allies’ opposition to the Iraq invasion, sneered, “Americans are from Mars and Europeans are from Venus.” If the goddess of love has supplanted the god of war on the continent, though, that is mostly a positive change, and one owed in large part to the European Union.

Its origins lie in the European Coal and Steel Community, a common market in those commodities made up of Germany, France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. It eventually grew into the European Economic Community before becoming a political as well as economic union.

Today, it has 27 member nations, whose citizens can travel from Portugal to Estonia without showing a passport. It’s the biggest single market on Earth, with a common currency and an elected parliament. It played a critical role in putting nations once ruled by the Soviet Union on the path to democracy.

Such a vast confederation is bound to face internal disagreements. Being an economic but not a fiscal union has produced strong tensions between spendthrift countries, such as Greece, and tight-fisted ones, notably Germany.

The economic crisis wracking Europe poses a threat to the EU — raising the danger some countries will leave to reassert control over their monetary and fiscal policies. The Nobel committee hopes to underscore its immense value.

The EU’s “grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest,” it said, should not obscure “the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights” – which has helped “transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.”

The EU has not abolished political quarrels or economic divides or human folly. In the past, those factors kindled war. Today, they bring down parliamentary governments and generate mass demonstrations. Germans and Greeks may not love each other right now, but they are conducting their battles with words, not bullets.

For that historic feat — and for the fact that it can be so easily discounted — we can all thank the EU.

chicagotribune

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