Why Europe needed the Nobel Peace Prize

Sunk low by euro woes, the European Union needed the Nobel Peace Prize to remind it why it should be grateful for its past success. Gratitude helps in affairs of state as much as in personal ties.

A statue of a globe painted with the EU flag and a peace dove stands in the garden of a church near the EU Council in Brussels. The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for its efforts to promote peace and democracy in Europe, despite being in the midst of its biggest crisis since the bloc was created in the 1950s.

It may seem like an odd time to give the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union. What’s to admire right now?

Much of the Continent is in recession. The eurozone could split up. Germany has doubts about its pivotal role. Britain, always the odd man out, is feeling even more out. Spain and Greece are bracing for more riots over imposed austerity.

Yet precisely because of such woes, the Norwegian Nobel Committee was smart to remind Europeans of the power of gratitude in recognizing past successes as a way to help heal the current rifts and stresses. This year’s prize is both a pat on the back and a prod to count one’s blessings.

Those blessings are often easy to forget. The EU has prevented war like those of the 19th and 20th centuries among its 27 sovereignty-surrendering members. By integrating step by step, it has also expanded democracy, human rights, and prosperity – and the ability to influence others to imitate or join that progress. Europe also has the largest economy, won the most medals at the last Olympics, and has the most-desired tourist destinations.

Those achievements should not be neglected while the EU convulses over a big bump in the road – a faltering common currency and swooning debts. It’s quite a feat to join up so many people of so many cultures in only six decades. Asia, Africa, Latin America, and the Middle East have hardly begun.

“The main message is that we need to keep in mind what we have achieved on this continent, and not let the Continent go into disintegration again,” said Thorbjørn Jagland, head of the Nobel Committee, in announcing the prize.

In other words, it’s time to acknowledge a debt of gratitude even as Europe worries about its hefty financial debts.

Gratitude is less employed in affairs of state than it is in personal relationships or religious worship. Yet it carries the same ability to hold to what is true and good during trying times, serving as a light in the dark.

Leaders of a nation in crisis often cite past achievements, but few call for public displays of gratitude. More should. The best example was Abraham Lincoln’s declaration for a regular Thanksgiving Day. He did that during the Civil War to lift the thoughts of the Union above the violence and toward eternal ideals and a common God.

This year’s peace prize could also serve another purpose. For too long, the EU has hung together for what it opposed – a Soviet threat, a return to fascism, or an aggressive Germany – or even to America’s global dominance. This negative identity isn’t enough to get it through a crisis like the current euro debacle. The EU must also promise more than shared wealth.

What unites Europe the most are shared principles of liberty, rights, and peace. The Nobel Committee, made up of people from a country (Norway) outside the EU, lobbed a big “thanks” to Europe, providing the light of gratitude to help the EU get out of its temporary thicket.

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