Contrary to the reams of mockery unleashed on Friday and over the weekend, the decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union is absolutely the right idea. The EU is one of the great achievements in human history, and its contribution to peace in Europe and elsewhere is beyond doubt.
The only problem is, the Nobel comes at completely the wrong time. It would have made perfect sense 20 years ago when the Cold War was over and Europe was whole, free and at peace for the first time in its history. But with the continent mired in its gravest social and economic crisis since the 1930s and the EU project in danger of unravelling, it feels like a consolation prize -- like a lifetime achievement award at the Oscars or a retirement gift for decades of loyal service.
In his 1950 declaration that gave birth to what eventually became the present-day union, French foreign minister Robert Schuman called for the pooling of coal and steel to make war between France and Germany "not only unthinkable, but materially impossible." Today, a military conflict in the heart of Europe is indeed unimaginable -- as it is between other democratic trading nations like the United States and Canada or Australia and New Zealand.
Despite what the cynics say, the EU deserves much of the credit for this for devising a system in which European disputes are solved in drab Brussels boardrooms rather than on battlefields. But it did not act alone. As U.S. President Barack Obama said when accepting his own Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, "The world must remember that it was not simply international institutions -- not just treaties and declarations -- that brought stability to a post-World War II world." The presence of hundreds of thousands of U.S. troops helped keep the peace in Europe. NATO continues to supply a security umbrella for most European states. And globalization has bound countries ever closer together through trade and business ties.
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee praised the EU for helping turn Europe "from a continent of war to a continent of peace." This is only partly true. While its members have kept the peace between themselves -- no mean achievement for a continent that perfected the art of bloodletting -- the European Union's fringes have been anything but peaceful. In the last two decades alone, there have been wars in Transnistria, Nagorno-Karabakh, Chechnya, and Georgia after the break-up of the Soviet Union and the return of genocide and ethnic cleansing with the violent splintering of Yugoslavia.
"This is the hour of Europe," declared Luxembourg Foreign Minister Jacques Poos in 1992 as the Balkans started to burn. But instead of demonstrating Europe's strength, the conflicts in Slovenia, Bosnia, Croatia, and finally Kosovo highlighted Europe's impotence. A club with pretensions to become global a power could not even stop slaughter an hour's flight from its capital.
As storm clouds gathered over the Balkans in the early 1990s, EU leaders met in Maastricht to sign a treaty that is at the root of many of the bloc's problems today. Far from uniting Europeans -- one of the aims of the single currency that was unveiled in the 1992 treaty -- the euro has divided the continent and contributed to the EU's deepest crisis since its foundation.