You don’t really think of Norway as the land of the laugh-riot, do you? Lots of oil, yes, and $10 cups of coffee, but they’re not necessarily so big on the yuks. And yet you’d think the Family Guy’s joke writers had moved to Oslo this week, judging by the reaction to the announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The European Union won the prize. Fine, I’ll wait till you stop laughing. Go change your underwear if you need to. You wouldn’t be alone in finding this the most hilarious thing since that video of the cat playing the piano. All over Twitter, the micro-gagsters sharpened their claws: Who would the committee choose next? Mick Jagger and Keith Richards?
Critics pointed to Europe’s many cracks: The German Chancellor needed extra security on her recent trip to an understandably angry Greece; the Red Cross is setting up relief shelters to assist the poor of Spain. In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron dangles the prospect of a referendum on leaving the EU, though this is a sop to the Euroskeptic right wing of his party, which still lives in a Fawlty Towers era where anyone beyond the English Channel is a baguette-carrying garlic-breather. The ultimate irony is that the Nobel Peace Prize committee is composed of Norwegians, a people who won’t touch EU membership with a 10-foot pole. In fact, admitted Geir Lundestad of the Nobel Institute, Norway has never been less interested in joining the EU.
So it’s a ridiculous choice, right? Not as bad as Henry “besuited bomber” Kissinger, but right up there. Except that the committee wasn’t giving a prize to the euro zone – the 17 countries that share a common currency – but the 27 countries of the EU, which are bound by a more complicated social, legal and political pact. And it’s that pact that has brought peace to Europe through a very complicated set of rules and laws.
Rather than a ridiculous choice, the prize committee made a wildly radical one. It didn’t chose a single, glamorous name, which the celebrity-watchers and Twitter wags would have liked, but rather an army of bureaucrats, countless anonymous women and men in boxy suits, toiling in stuffy rooms in Lisbon and Brussels and Berlin. It’s almost like giving an award to the gears of a clock.
And yes, sometimes those bureaucrats are arguing over the size of bananas or precisely how smelly a cheese should be to earn the name Camembert, but more often they’re bashing out bits of a legal framework that allows 500 million people to live together in quite amazing harmony, with their rights safeguarded.
As Human Rights Watch pointed out when the announcement was made, the 27 foreign ministers of the EU recently signed an agreement to put human rights at the centre of their negotiations with the rest of the world. The countries that still want to join the EU – Croatia becomes a member next year, Serbia has its fingers crossed – must improve how they treat their own citizens first. Think of what the committee cited the EU for: democracy, human rights, reconciliation. The last time I checked, those were things people marched for, not sneered at.
When I lived in London, the EU wasn’t an idea, it was a daily reality. The Polski skleps near my house that sold pierogies, the Czech film festival down the street, the parade of invaluable Italian babysitters, the man who stopped my son on the street upon seeing his Vlad the Impaler T-shirt to say, gravely, “I am liking your shirt. I am from Transylvania.” (And yes, he did sound like Dracula.) There are upward of 400,000 French citizens living in London, which, as the BBC likes to point out, makes it the sixth-largest city in France.
Does it seem like a silly time to give the peace prize to Europe – or perhaps, instead, the best time? Europe’s hurtled toward the cliff’s edge more often than Indiana Jones. This time last year, we all bit our nails as the G20 leaders gathered in Cannes to try to sort out the mess in the euro zone. It seemed Europe was teetering on the abyss, that the whole project would fall apart in a matter of weeks. In his usual understated fashion, CNN’s Wolf Blitzer wondered whether the European crisis “could plunge the world into financial Armageddon.” Every day, I checked the supply of pierogies in my bomb shelter.
You’d have to be blind to think that the crisis in the euro zone has been sorted out, or to discount the suffering of some of its members. There’s a looming danger that financial imperatives will trump democratic institutions. But, at least for now, Europe trundles on, bound by a series of laws and institutions that were pounded out in boring, unglamorous surroundings, largely uninterrupted by hair-pulling, eye-gouging or nuclear weapons. That’s got to be worth a prize.