Oct 14, 2012

“Seid umschlungen, Millionen!”

Frankly speaking, my first reaction, appassionata, when I read on Friday that the European Union had received this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was to think that the Nobel Committee should be kidding. How could they acknowledge an organization like that whose policies and recommendations are linked to 50% of youth unemployment in Spain, an overnight 100% increase in taxes on consumption in Portugal, and a rise in suicide rates in Greece? Still surprised I remembered Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, whose fourth movement has phrases such as “Embrace, you millions!” or “All men will be brothers” which Hitler liked so much that he had this work played for him in one of his birthdays and then later became the official anthem of the EU.

My second reaction made me reconsider what had just gone through my mind and really ask why the EU had received the prize. The Nobel Commission’s reason was that “over six decades [it has] contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe”. Moreover, in his statement following the Commission’s decision, José Manuel Durão Barroso, President of the European Commission, recalled that “the European Union brought together nations emerging from the ruins of the devastating 2nd World War and united them in a project for peace, built on supranational institutions representing the common European interest.” Certainly, it is quite remarkable that less than ten years after the whole continent was literally in ashes, an association of six countries created to prevent or deter carbon and energy conflicts began a process that in the lifetime of one generation became to be the world model per excellence of regional political union. As well, there is a general agreement that the EU, requiring democratic regimes for its members, contributed to the transition processes and the ousting of authoritarianism in the region. Furthermore, the EU has international programs dedicated to the surveillance and promotion of human rights and its funds for assistance have been one of the trademarks of its foreign policy.

Of course, the story does not go so easily as, again, there is the issue of the crisis in Europe. On occasion of the prize, the website of the Spanish newspaper El País published a set of reflections related to the award to the EU in this moment of turmoil. On the one hand, there is the critical, even harsh, though not necessarily pessimistic, perspective. First, German writer Hans Magnus Enzensberger strongly denounces that European citizens have been politically and economically expropriated by a set of acronyms that have supplanted democratically elected authorities: ECB, IMF, ESM, EFSF, or EFSM. These institutions, he continues, have repeated again and again that if their European project fails, the whole region, seen as nations and as individuals, will also fail. Enzensberger ends up saying that the Europeans will not give up so easily. In a similar line, The Atlantic published an article severely questioning the decision to give the EU the Nobel Peace Prize after it did nothing to prevent war in the Balkans back in the 1990s.

On the other hand, we have the encouraging point of view, illustrated by the articles written by Felipe González (former President of the Spanish Government), Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (former President of France), and Michelangelo Baracchi Bonvinci and Carlos Yárnoz (political analyst and Under Director of El País). Their arguments go around the idea that the prize is the best pretext to remember why the EU project was created in the first place, and that those objectives must be used as inputs to deal with the current crisis. In its 60 years of existence, the Union has given the region its longest period of peace and prosperity in history. Thus, the lesson is that a united Europe can defend its interests, and its most immediate goal now is to recover shared economic well-being, both at the macro level (per the indicators of the 27 members of the EU), and at a micro level (seen as the living quality of its more than 500 million inhabitants). And that historically the citizens of the region have constantly proven to be far more united than what their governments’ actions tell; so, it is in the Europeans, in their will to go against the odds, not so much in their institutions, to work for the common good. Yárnoz points out that what he calls such a “European” message ironically comes from Oslo, where the Nobel Peace Prize Committee is awarded, because Norway is not a member of the Union.

This last message is the same one that has appeared in previous crises in other places: a bunch of people caused the trouble, but the society will have to endure its consequences. It is not very convincing and it is very close to becoming the cliché of this time. However, given the fact that the Lisbon Treaty, the foundation for the most recent version of the EU institutions, was approved in national referenda, even by small margins, it can be suggested that the people actually believed in the Union project. Its political leaders, then, must put all their efforts into meeting those expectations. So far, they have not achieved it. As the French paper Le Monde puts it, it is not even clear who will incarnate the EU to receive the prize. Barroso, the head of the executive power of the Union, elected by the European Parliament and, thus, relatively accountable to the people? Herman Van Rompuy, President of the Council of Europe, chosen by the member states? Or Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament, only regional institution elected by the people? In other words: Who is the European Union?

The present situation of the European Union perhaps can be better illustrated with two musical images: Beethoven’s, after Schiller’s work, “Seid umschlungen, Millionen!” (“Embrace, you millions!”), or Edith Piaf’s, after George Moustaki’s lyrics, “Regardez-moi, Milord / Vous ne m’avez jamais vue / Mais vous pleurez, Milord / ça, je l’aurais jamais cru” (“Look at me, Milord / You had never seen me / But you weep, Milord / I would have never believed it”). I do not know which is more suitable.


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