James Downey: Nobel Prize may serve to refocus our minds on value that union brings
THE committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize has made some rather bizarre decisions in the past. It has given what is probably the world's greatest honour to some of the wrong people, at the wrong time, excluding some of the most worthy and leaving onlookers puzzled about its reasons.
Has it picked its time badly again by honouring the European Union when the EU is struggling in the toils of the debt crisis and when the common currency, and perhaps even the EU itself, are in danger of dissolution?
Or has it made a smart political move, hinting -- perhaps more than hinting -- that there could hardly be a better time to remind Europe of its achievements and the requirement to make the moves (which implies, the sacrifices) necessary to maintain them?
And nobody can question those achievements.
The history of Europe, as far back as research can bring us, has been a history of war, not peace. Among the most devastating events were the Thirty Years' War in the 17th Century and the Napoleonic Wars at the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries. Both were outdone by the two world wars of the 20th Century, which began and ended in Europe and which came close to destroying western civilisation.
Through those centuries and farther back, enlightened people proposed, and some attempted, to create a continent-wide political union which would make such terrible conflicts impossible.
In modern times, a serious proposal for political union emerged almost 200 years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. But it took an infinitely worse event, World War Two, to make the dream reality -- or almost reality.
The efforts of great statesmen, as they surveyed the destruction, resulted in the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951. France and Germany, with those vital industries united, simply would not have the tools to attack each other. There followed the moves towards economic union which, on the whole, have succeeded.
In consequence, we the people of the western (and more recently the central) parts of the continent have enjoyed for well over half-a-century an era of peace, prosperity and freedom which can hardly be equalled in all history.
The president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, calls the EU "the biggest peacemaker in history". And peace, and wise governance, have brought vast improvements in every aspect of trade and daily life.
We can tell ourselves, as Harold Macmillan once told the British people, that "you have never had it so good".
And this is true, to a large extent, not only of countries with long traditions of democracy in its various forms but of most countries of the former "Eastern bloc". When communism fell, the EU seized the time and invited the former satellites into the union.
But now the European Union is in crisis. And this crisis is intimately linked to the defects of the common currency and to the failure to achieve, or even make concrete progress towards, the ambition of those who founded the Economic Community in 1957: political union.
The common currency was always criticised for its "design defects". Fundamentally, the argument has frequently been made that a single currency cannot survive without a single political authority. The model is, of course, the world's greatest federation, the United States of America.
Now Chancellor Angela Merkel has seized the time again.
Beyond the mind-shattering complexities of the debt crisis, beyond the dire condition of the Irish and southern economies, she has raised the issue of political union. This cannot be achieved without enormous difficulties. Can we overcome them?
To achieve that will require the services of statesmen (and women) equal in stature to those who created the European institutions in the 1950s. Are the present rulers and their advisers fit for the task?
In an important way, the award of the Nobel Peace Prize is a strong signal to them to step up to the mark. And perhaps we can -- and should, if we are wise -- use it as an occasion to reflect, with a view to amendment, on Ireland's relations with the European Union.
Once we were told, and most of us believed, that membership had no military implications and indeed, in essence, no political implications. Brussels was a cash cow, providing grants, loans and subsidies and asking for nothing in return.
But when the debt crisis struck, we found ourselves paying a price we had never expected. It was not a fair price, and it will have to be renegotiated. Meanwhile, however, we could usefully look about for an Irish statesman who might not win a Nobel Prize but who has an understanding of Europe's past and a vision of its future.