The EU gets its Nobel, offers dose of hubris

The EU gets its Nobel, offers dose of hubris

Representatives of the European Union today accepted the Nobel Peace Prize today. The speeches by European Council president Herman van Rompuy and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso were eloquent and moving. Plenty of snide commentary has surrounded the EU’s award, but both men made the case simply and powerfully that the EU has made an enormous difference to a once war-ravaged continent. Van Rompuy placed the European project in the context of the cataclysm from which it emerged:

To think of what France and Germany had gone through…, and then take this step… Signing a Treaty of Friendship… Each time I hear these words – Freundschaft, Amitié –, I am moved. They are private words, not for treaties between nations. But the will to not let history repeat itself, to do something radically new, was so strong that new words had to be found.

When Konrad Adenauer came to Paris to conclude the Coal and Steel Treaty, in 1951, one evening he found a gift waiting at his hotel. It was a war medal, une Croix de Guerre, that had belonged to a French soldier. His daughter, a young student, had left it with a little note for the Chancellor, as a gesture of reconciliation and hope.

Van Rompuy mainly spoke of the union in European terms, and he urged the peoples of the EU to draw on the achievements of the past as they confront today’s crisis. Barroso, the head of the EU’s bureaucracy, went much further; he presented the EU as a model for the rest of the world–a critical architectural answer to the challenge of managing transnational problems in a world of states. His remarks are worth quoting at length on this point (emphasis mine):

The genius of the founding fathers was precisely in understanding that to guarantee peace in the 20th century nations needed to think beyond the nation-state. As Walter Hallstein, the first President of the European Commission said: "Das System der Nationalstaaten hat den wichtigsten Test des 20. Jahrhunderts nicht bestanden ("The system of sovereign nationstates has failed the most important test of the 20th century"). And he added " through two world wars it has proved itself unable to preserve peace."

The uniqueness of the European project is to have combined the legitimacy of democratic States with the legitimacy of supranational institutions: the European Commission, the European Court of Justice. Supranational institutions that protect the general European interest, defend the European common good and embody the community of destiny. And alongside the European Council, where the governments are represented, we have over the years developed a unique transnational democracy symbolised by the directly elected European Parliament.

Our quest for European unity is not a perfect work of art; it is work in progress that demands constant and diligent tending. It is not an end in itself, but a means to higher ends. In many ways, it attests to the quest for a cosmopolitan order, in which one person’s gain does not need to be another person’s pain; in which abiding by common norms serves universal values.


That is why despite its imperfections, the European Union can be, and indeed is, a powerful inspiration for many around the world. Because the challenges faced from one region to the other may differ in scale but they do not differ in nature.

We all share the same planet. Poverty, organised crime, terrorism, climate change: these are problems that do not respect national borders. We share the same aspirations and universal values: these are progressively taking root in a growing number of countries all over the world. We share "l’irréductible humain", the irreducible uniqueness of the human being. Beyond our nation, beyond our continent, we are all part of one mankind.

Jean Monnet, ends his Memoirs with these words: "Les nations souveraines du passé ne sont plus le cadre où peuvent se résoudre les problèmes du présent. Et la communauté elle-même n’est qu’une étape vers les formes d’organisation du monde de demain." ("The sovereign nations of the past can no longer solve the problems of the present. And the [European] Community itself is only a stage on the way to the organised world of the future.")

This federalist and cosmopolitan vision is one of the most important contributions that the European Union can bring to a global order in the making.

This would be heady stuff even if the EU machinery were ticking along smoothly. In the context of the EU’s present travails, it flirts with hubris. His claim that Europe has solved the problem of how to imbue supranational institutions with legitimacy is ambitious (and could soon be tested). What’s more, Barroso is claiming not only that the EU model was the answer for Europe but that it is illuminating the path forward for the rest of the world.

Even leaving aside the validity of that claim, I doubt boasting about the EU as a model is wise.  At least for U.S. conservatives, one of the most fundamental objections to reasonable international regulation is the conviction that it will lead inexorably to EU-style governance; that global governance’s only natural resting place is the creation of supranational government. U.S. internationalists have always pooh-poohed that claim. Flushed with pride, Barroso appeared to be embracing it.