Visit any government building in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia and you will find two flags hanging proudly outside: those bearing the national emblem of Georgia and the starred circle of the European Union. To some outsiders, such a display seems odd. Georgia isn’t even a member of the 27-country bloc. But it desperately wants to be.
The desire to join the European community is not just a longing for the economic benefits that stem from free trade of goods and movement of peoples; it goes much deeper. For many Georgians, Europe is the apotheosis of liberal values, stable government and – not insignificant for a country that fought a disastrous war with Russia four years ago – peace.
With last week’s awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU, it’s worth considering how Georgians view the regional organization. The prize committee’s decision has been ridiculed by the usual crowd of conservative Euro-skeptics, who paint the EU as a cabal of scheming bureaucrats, or who, like Czech President Vaclav Klaus, charge it to be a newfangled incarnation of the Soviet Union masking its totalitarian impulses behind benign, post-modern rhetoric. The continent-wide economic crisis and the seemingly endless headache that is the euro have also led some to deride last week’s prize announcement as a morale booster, much like its conferral in 2009 upon the recently elected and unaccomplished President Barack Obama.
But for the vast majority of Georgians, as well as many in the Balkans, Ukraine, Belarus and others living in Europe’s periphery, the EU is an idea, and one worth striving toward.
In its official statement explaining this year’s prize, the Nobel Committee stated that the EU “for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” But it’s not just Europe that has benefited: It’s also the countries that have aspired to become part of Europe, which must first embrace the liberal values that the body upholds as a condition of membership.
Georgia is a textbook example. When he came to power in 2003’s peaceful Rose Revolution, the Western-educated President Mikheil Saakashvili made his country’s integration into Europe a priority and set about that mission at breakneck pace. Though Saakashvili’s record as a liberal democrat was not spotless, he eliminated petty corruption and opened his country up to the West. Earlier this month, when his party lost parliamentary elections, Saakashvili gracefully conceded and is currently presiding over an orderly and peaceful transition of power, an unprecedented development in the region.
Without denying Saakashvili any of the credit he deserves, such an outcome would have been inconceivable without the benign example set by the EU. Saakashvili’s political reforms, economic development strategy and overall liberalization project were motivated by a desire to move the country away from the Russian sphere and into the Western one. When the president fell short of these expectations, it was EU officials and bodies that voiced concern. Potential EU membership initially motivated Turkey to liberalize; its democratic backsliding over the past 10 years will forestall what many once viewed as inevitable. Even taking the federation’s fiscal woes into account, the EU represents progress for the nations living under Russia’s shadow.
But the prize hasn’t always struck a blow for liberal values. The committee will never live down its decision to award Yasser Arafat in 1994 (a choice that was barely ameliorated by its being shared with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin ). Honoring former President Jimmy Carter in 2002 was explicitly intended as a rebuke to the Bush administration, loathed by all bien pensant Europeans. Much as the continuing denial of the Nobel Prize for Literature to Philip Roth serves as an annual reminder of that award committee’s lack of literary taste, the Peace Prize is as notorious for who has not won it than who has. That former Czech President Vaclav Havel, who died last December, was not a laureate is a scandal. And, as far as regional organizations go, it is NATO that has done more to preserve peace on the European continent than the EU.
According to Jay Nordlinger, author of “Peace, They Say: A History of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Most Famous and Controversial Prize in the World”: “We can only guess why” the Prize’s namesake, Alfred Nobel, a Swede, appointed the Norwegian parliament as the body to select the Peace Prize’s nomination committee. Nor did Nobel tell anyone why Norwegians, of all people, should be the ones to pronounce the greatest contributors to world peace.
Awarding the EU prioritizes the collective over the individual. In years past, the Nobel Committee has given the award to such bodies as the United Nations, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines and the International Atomic Energy Agency – usually in conjunction with the leaders of such organizations. Giving the award to the EU, and crediting it with everything from the prevention of war to the preservation of democracy, diminishes the roles played by visionary leaders, not to mention normal citizens. While the EU’s eastern neighbors would be right to view this year’s prize as confirmation of their desire to join the body, they need to remember that it is respect for individual rights, not supranational bodies, that ensures peace.