Does the EU deserve its Nobel Peace Prize?

Oliver Miles

The European Coal and Steel Community and the other elements from which the EU springs were explicitly intended to make war between France and Germany ‘not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible’. That aim has been achieved, though America and Nato also played their part. But what contribution has the EU made to peacemaking elsewhere? I restrict my thoughts here to three conflicts in which I have been personally involved as a diplomat: Palestine, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.

In 1980, just before I became directly involved with Palestine in the FCO, the nine-member European Economic Community issued the Venice Declaration, which broke new ground by recognising that the Palestinian people had the right to self-determination, in effect proposing a ‘land for peace’ deal which later became the basis of the two-state solution, still the preferred option of the international community. This was a bold attempt by Europe to fill the gap created by the failure of the United States to take a balanced position between Israel and the Arabs. I believe it owed a lot to Lord Carrington, described by Reagan’s secretary of state Alexander Haig as a ‘duplicitous bastard’ because he did not always fall in with American policy.

Unfortunately it remains unique. I remember in about 1983 being invited to sign up to a paper drafted by my colleagues in the FCO who dealt with Europe which argued that only America had leverage on Israel, not Europe. When I pointed out that Europeans ate Israeli grapefruit but Americans did not I was told that it would be quite impossible to orient community trade policy to the solution of political problems. In other words, Europeans did not necessarily lack the means but we lacked the will.

The EU is a member of the Quartet (along with the US, UN and Russia) set up in 2002 to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’. But America has remained firmly in the driving seat, and the Quartet has, in the uncharacteristically pithy words of the secretary general of the Arab League, proved to be a ‘Quartet sans trio’. As one analyst put it, ‘for the US... the Quartet was paradoxically a useful means to give the impression that it was engaging in the peace process without substantively committing to it.’ The peace process itself has been in a vegetative state for some years. So no prizes there.

By the time Cyprus and the EU began to eye one another, the Cyprus problem had gone into the deep freeze. In 1974, just after I finished a four-year stint in Nicosia, the Greek government attempted to mount a coup against the government of President Makarios. Turkey invaded and the island was divided in two. Negotiations for a political solution did not break down, but were stuck. In 1990 Cyprus applied for full European membership, and serious negotiations began in 1993. This looked like a game-changer. All the EU had to do was to say it could only join as a united island. But Greece was a tireless advocate for admitting Cyprus in its existing form: a Greek Cypriot government universally acknowledged and recognised but controlling only part of the island in the interests of only one of the two communities. And that’s the form in which it was admitted in 2004.

I was the British ambassador in Athens during some of the negotiations that led to Cyprus joining the EU. They were mainly about economics and trade, although there was more than a nod in the direction of democracy and human rights. But the EU was constitutionally disinclined and ill-adapted to deal with a problem that was essentially political. The EU had a real chance to solve one of the most gristly problems on the international agenda, and muffed it.

When I worked in the Northern Ireland Office in Belfast at the end of the 1980s, one of my jobs, given my Foreign Office background, was bear-leading foreign visitors, mostly diplomats and ministers from friendly countries with a benign interest in the problem. ‘Now that Britain and Ireland are in Europe,’ they often said, ‘surely most of these problems are out of date?’ I would introduce them to a few moderate representatives of the Unionist and Nationalist communities, who quickly put them right. Again, the European machinery was not adjusted to deal with the political problems we faced.

But there is more to it than that. Before Britain and Ireland both joined the EEC in 1973, I believe that there had never been a meeting between the British prime minister and the taoiseach. We had embassies, but even ministerial contacts were sparse, given the intimate relations between the two countries and populations.

The first meeting of prime ministers may have been in Paris in 1974 between Harold Wilson and Liam Cosgrave. From then on there were regular meetings of the European Council, so when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister five years later, meetings with the taoiseach were already routine. This was part of the background to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, in which she and Garret FitzGerald played the lead roles. If they had not met repeatedly in Brussels I doubt it would have happened.

A couple of years after the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed I was part of the joint secretariat of the permanent conference set up under the agreement, along with an Irish ambassador. The British and Irish governments were committed to finding a solution to the problem. But I saw how hard it was for British politicians, particularly those steeped in the Unionist tradition, to accept that Dublin had a legitimate interest in some of the things that were going on in Northern Ireland. When a well-known nationalist was shot as he walked across the border, I found that getting approval from ministers for the slightest degree of co-operation with the Irish authorities was like pulling teeth. Our Irish colleagues found it equally difficult to accept British authority anywhere in the island of Ireland. But for the commitment of Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald – and later Charles Haughey – the whole train might have come off the rails.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, although it could be considered in the end to have failed, was the foundation on which John Major and Tony Blair later constructed peace in Northern Ireland. I don't think it goes far towards justifying the EU prize, but maybe one of the unsung benefits of the EU is the establishment of working relationships between political leaders who might otherwise be scarcely on speaking terms.


  • 23 October 2012 at 4:00pm
    keith smith says:
    Oliver Miles rightly acknowledges the success of the EU in its major peace aim, namely making war between France and Germany, but also more general war in Europe, 'not merely unthinkable but materially impossible'. And this is in fact the reason why the Nobel committee awarded the prize: 'The work of the EU represents "fraternity between nations", and amounts to a form of the "peace congresses" to which Alfred Nobel refers as criteria for the Peace Prize in his 1895 will'. The citation points to the undeniable fact that Europe has been transformed from a 'continent of war to a continent of peace' (
    laureates-2012/announce-2012). What's the point then of Miles's curmudgeonly attempt to judge EU peace efforts on the basis of three cases, each of which predates the formation of the EU (or its precursors), and none of which is an intrinsically European issue anyway? One conflict (Israel-Palestine) is overwhelmingly dominated by US strategic interests which back an Israeli veto on any movement. Two, (Cyprus and Northern Ireland) are disasters for which British Governments surely bear a long primary historical responsibility. I can't for the life of me see why we should beat up the EU for its relatively peripheral roles in these conflicts.

  • 25 October 2012 at 3:29am
    Colin says:
    But how much specific credit does the EU deserve for 'the success ... in its major peace aim, namely making war between France and Germany, but also more general war in Europe, ‘not merely unthinkable but materially impossible’'?

    Hasn't the developed world simply become a lot more like this (economically interdependent in a way which would seem to preclude war' overall in the period the EU has existed? Indeed, if the broad criteria Keith Smith has outlined are enough, wouldn't it be better to award the prize to the nuclear bomb, which has had a similarly cooling effect on national aggression, in a wider sphere than just Europe?

    Keith Smith then asks 'What’s the point then of Miles’s ... attempt to judge EU peace efforts on the basis of three cases?' The answer seems straightforward enough, namely that if the EU deserves special credit above and beyond the historical factors it happens to have ridden, then the evidence of its beneficial role should emerge in its record of dealing with particular conflicts.

    If we can't find good examples of noteworthy actual examples of the institution of the EU, as Miles cannot from his own experience, then we might as well all award ourselves a succulent prize on the grounds that we live in a world which apparently is less violent than previous eras, and go home. Then again, the Nobel Peace Prize is a load of vapid, self-regarding bullshit anyway, and so the language of 'whether the prize is truly deserved' might give away rather too much ground to begin with.

  • 25 October 2012 at 3:48pm
    keith smith says:
    Economic interdependence wasn't simply the result of some 'historical factors [the EU] happens to have ridden', but was laboriously constructed, through discretionary policy actions that weren't easy. For most of the world, and latterly the EU, these policy decisions (such as capital market deregulation) were shaped by a neoliberal framework that is open to a lot of criticism. But the EU, though tainted by this, rests on more than neoliberalism in its creation of interdependence - there are also things like free movement of people, trans-European political rights, shared access to health systems, integrated transport networks, Schengen, and a lot more. This stuff took real work, and its seems to me weird to deny that it has had a big role in making Europe a 'continent of peace' as the Nobel Committee puts it. Judging all this by three cases that have little or nothing to do with the EU is also weird. The Peace Prize Committee is sometimes very foolish. But the vapid, self-regarding bullshit, this time around, lies in the cynical denigration of anything to do with the EU, so pervasive is dear little England, and now to be found in the LRB.

  • 25 October 2012 at 6:14pm
    Oliver Miles says:
    I'm a bit puzzled. Curmudgeonly - beating up the EU - cynical denigration - dear little England - is that my article Keith Smith is on about?

  • 25 October 2012 at 8:13pm
    keith smith says:
    I think your article was wrong-headed, because the cases you adduce cannot seriously be used to judge the worth or not of the EU as a peace-making institution.