The EU's badly timed prize

If you say the word "Brussels" to most British people, they will immediately think "bureaucracy", or maybe "straight bananas". So the award of the Nobel peace prize to the European Union is an important reminder that the European project has always had a strong element of anti-war idealism at its core.

The timing of the prize, however, is distinctly odd. The introduction of the euro changed the EU from an institution that used economic integration to promote peace to one that is sacrificing peace on the altar of free-market economics. Brussels is being rewarded for its pacific past at the very moment it is provoking civil strife.

The European project has never been entirely idealistic, of course. Hardheaded national interest and the determination to prevent excessive US influence were also central to the founders' calculations. Nor did Europe's eirenic outlook always extend beyond its borders. Individual countries have sometimes played a far from peaceful role in the world – especially the French and British meddling in their former empires. Europe's protectionism has also damaged the interests of the developing world.

Even so, there was a real internationalism among the first European generation. The eastern French Robert Schuman, western German Konrad Adenauer, and northern Italian Alcide de Gasperi all grew up in the long fought-over borderlands of Europe. All three knew the dangers of war from personal and family experience.

It was this sense of idealism that allowed Europe to play such a role in the transitions of Portugal and Spain to democracy in the 1970s. And Brussels was a beacon for the democrats of eastern Europe after 1989 for much the same reason. While the Washington of George W Bush was trying to bind ex-communist states into a militaristic anti-Russian alliance, the EU was using the carrot of membership to encourage authoritarian elites to reform.

For much of its history, therefore, the European project has had a good claim on a peace prize – though it would never have won a prize for internal democracy. But since 2008, the catastrophic single currency has transformed the EU into a source of conflict, and even violence.

The euro was originally well meant. Jacques Delors, its creator, was a French Christian Socialist who believed it was necessary to foster currency stability and free capital flows. But Delors also hoped these would be balanced by powerful European institutions, which would preserve Europe's state-led industrial policies and welfare systems.

As we know, what happened in practice was that the euro, combined with financial deregulation, allowed a massive build-up of debt in the south. We should have expected this, for that is precisely what happened during the last disastrous single currency experiment – the gold standard of the 1920s.

Now the bubble has inevitably burst, the blame game is intense – just as it was in the 30s. In Greece, we see Weimar-style polarisation and social breakdown. Southern Europeans denounce German "imperialism" just as Germans once condemned the financial highhandedness of American "Jewish" bankers. And yet as long as Brussels remains committed to the euro, dissension is bound to get worse. For the single currency stops southerners devaluing and exporting their way to growth.

In 1896, congressman William Jennings Bryan famously appealed to the American government not to "crucify mankind upon a cross of gold". And as the eurocrats descend on Oslo to receive their prize, they should remember his words. For they seem willing to nail the European project itself on the cross of the euro.

David Priestland teaches history at Oxford University and is the author of Merchant, Soldier, Sage: A New History of Power.

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