— With news coverage focusing on the ongoing euro crisis, demonstrators protesting austerity in the streets of European capitals and commentators predicting the breakup of our union, the European Union may not have seemed to most Americans the obvious choice for the Nobel Peace Prize.
And yet the Nobel Committee recently announced the EU would receive the award for having “contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,” reminding us “what can happen if disintegration starts and if we let extremism and nationalism start growing again in Europe.”
I was in Manchester, N.H., when I got word. Two nights earlier, I spoke at an event in Portland, Maine, honoring former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell for his role in bringing peace to Northern Ireland. After the event, where Mitchell spoke eloquently about his motivation and persistence in the cause of peace, I realized he had put his finger on something the EU has achieved but seldom gets credit for: the ability to find common ground among adversaries and to transform that into a lasting peace.
I thought about how EU membership brought two countries, Ireland and the United Kingdom, together in a way that was unprecedented in history, and helped build confidence and trust on which to build a peace process in Northern Ireland.
My reaction to the news from Oslo, Norway, was with pride and a sense of delayed recognition. I remembered how EU membership for my home country of Portugal put the dark years of the Salazar dictatorship firmly behind us, something I lived for 17 years before the end of the regime in 1974 and Portugal’s path to joining the EU in 1986.
How fitting that I should be in the “Live Free or Die” state!
Because of the current economic turmoil, the origin and raison d’etre of the EU as a peace process for war-torn Europe is often overlooked. It is sometimes forgotten that economic integration among the nations of Europe was originally a means to an end — peace, democracy, prosperity — not an end in itself.
In all these goals, the EU has already largely delivered: more than 50 years of peace in a part of the world that has unleashed two world wars. It has grown from six to 27 member countries, and next year 28, all of which are committed to peace for our 500 million citizens. Today we have a union founded on shared values and the rule of law with a heart that beats for freedom, democracy and human rights.
Our challenge now, as veterans and survivors of World War II pass on, is to make sure that people born today in Europe understand that this peace we have known for more than five decades is not automatic. It was and remains a conscious and deliberate choice.
Europe gets a lot of flak for taking time to make decisions, but we have learned the price of conflict and the value of consensus. It is time well-spent, a model that has served us well and, I believe, a good inspiration for other regions in the world struggling as we have.
The values that united and guided the EU from war to peace have become values we project outside our borders and that others around the world want to embrace. Often with the United States, we work to promote peace and security in places that desperately need it, promote free and fair elections, and fight for human rights. And we are proud of being the world’s largest trading bloc and provider of development assistance and humanitarian aid.
The political will that founded our union six decades ago remains. We are tackling our current crisis — a comprehensive approach involving both direct help to the debt-burdened countries and a more fundamental overhaul with a focus on increased fiscal coordination, integration of our banking and financial sectors, and enhanced competitiveness for our economies.
It is by no means an easy task. Just as after the war, we need more Europe, not less. All our member states are committed to this path because together we are more than the sum of our parts.
So while Americans may have been surprised by our winning the Nobel Peace Prize, the United States has always supported European integration, and it knows it can expect the EU to remain a predictable partner.
Joao Vale de Almeida is the European Union ambassador to the United States.