Nobel Intentions?

Contentious though it may be that the European Union has been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, it’s hardly a departure from precedent. That respected peace campaigners from Mahatma Gandhi to Václav Havel have been overlooked in favour of the likes of Henry Kissinger and Barack Obama led to its being re-branded the ‘Nobel War Prize’ by writer Tariq Ali. Again controversy appeared inevitable this year. Recognising an activist from eastern Europe (like Svetlana Gannushkina or Lyudmila Alexseyava) would have enraged Russian President Vladimir Putin whilst delighting the West. To have acknowledged Julian Assange for his WikiLeaks project would have had exactly the opposite effect.

Ironically, public response has been fairly united, only – as is often the case with the EU – in opposition. The usual suspects from the Eurosceptic Right have been wheeled out to provide the reactionary headlines on which our tabloids thrive. But figures from the international Left have also expressed dismay, including French presidential contender Jean-Luc Mélenchon (who reciprocally ‘awarded’ the committee the prize for ‘black humour’) and Reykjavik Mayor Jón Gnarr (who dryly tipped NATO for glory next year).

Journalists from the liberal press have interestingly joined EU employees – intermittently scraped from the bottom of the Brussels barrel – in defending the award. But what differentiates them from the bureaucrats is that they are arguing for an idea of Europe, as opposed to the existing institutions. And who would disagree? International solidarity is completely necessary in a globalised world of transnational corporations and free-flowing capital. Petty nationalism simply won’t do. But then the EU has a track record of pushing free market reforms that appear instead to have aggravated already-existing inequalities between the richer north and poorer south. As well as going against the stated aims of the Euro’s creator Jacques Delors, this laid the foundation for 2010’s crash.

Nobel committee leader Thorbjørn Jagland’s argument that ‘the stabilising part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace’ is open to semantic debate. To say that ‘war’ between Member States appears ‘unthinkable’ in light of the consensus shared by our (mostly) elected representatives doesn’t necessarily mean we live in ‘peace’. Try citing the particularities of the Geneva Convention to the thousands protesting against EU austerity demands in Italy, Spain, Portugal or Greece. Watch videos of police storming Madrid’s underground, admitting that they can’t decipher protesters from passengers before opening fire with rubber bullets. Read reports of Athens theatre-goers being physically assaulted in front of police by MPs from the unashamedly fascist Golden Dawn Party simply for attending a play that discusses homosexuality. Then tell me how lucky we are to be living on ‘a continent of peace’.

Even those who maintain – as in the Saturday Guardian Editorial – that financial war is ‘preferable to the real thing’ overlook other forms of conflict. What internal peace we are enjoying is premised upon a very separatist view of Europe. On a molecular level, policies of exclusion shape the destinies of those aspiring to European citizenship.

Again the sites of contestation are in southern Europe. At work here, the EU’s ‘external borders agency’ Frontex claims to have been created in 2004 to foster ‘the free movement of people’. This irony is explained by the vested interest this objective created in the northern powers; their neighbours could not be trusted with policing shared borders. Hence in addition to border guard training, risk analysis and research into migratory routes, Frontex organises joint return operations of illegal immigrants. ‘Returnees’, its website boasts, are ‘transported from several Member States to the Member State organising the flight, where they embark an aircraft and travel together to the destination airport in a third country’. They might have added ‘in a cost-effective manner’ were their budget for 2011 not €115 million.

Yet no matter how much is invested, borders remain porous. Human desperation means that the effect of these disincentives is to fuel a black market of human trafficking networks. In acknowledgement of this, Frontex conducts expensive floating patrols to avoid the ‘humanitarian tragedies’ that leave migrants stranded at sea. Those ‘saved’ have several months in a crowded detention centre awaiting them.

Conflict shapes the EU – inside and out. Even if the £700,000 prize money were donated to Greece – as Newsnight’s Gavin Esler cheekily suggested – this would not change. Following writer Petros Markaris’s description of the award as a ‘prize with an agenda’, an attempt has been made here to shed light on what this could be. To his credit, Jagland maintained that his committee wasn’t trying to ‘save the euro’, or even ‘the current policy’. But unlike many ideas of Europe, I doubt whether the current Union can be considered equal, inclusive – or peaceful – enough to justify this particular award.

Author: Chris Dietz

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