Vanished frontiers earn EU its Nobel Prize

Awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU has left many perplexed. However, the long “European civil war” that began in the 19th century should be enough to justify it.  

Awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU has left many perplexed. However,  the long “European civil war” that began in the 19th century should be enough to justify it.

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Borders that are neglected, rusty, forgotten, abandoned and that no one remembers. An impressive series of photographs explains all the reasons why the European Union has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. Also why, despite the existential crisis clouding Europe, Europeans have more than enough reasons to celebrate.

If you doubt this, think for a moment of the wall built by the United States on its southern border or about the twists and turns of the wall that Israel has built to separate itself from the Palestinians. Not to mention the border between the two Koreas. Those three frontiers are, quite simply, a monument to failure, a portrayal of the inability of many human beings to live peacefully together despite their different backgrounds, values and political or religious beliefs.

We Europeans, also, used to be that way. These boundary stones, signs and dividers, seemingly so innocent, are witness to millions of deaths. Soaked in the blood of hundreds of thousands of young people who gave their lives to defend those borders, they have been crossed by millions of refugees and displaced persons.

Europe’s Iron Curtain

Our older generation knows about this. They played in the rubble of what historians have called “Europe's long civil war,” a conflict that, with France and Germany at its core, began in 1870 and ended in 1945, following two world wars. But the generation after the Second World War also remembers exactly how Europe was split in two by an “Iron Curtain”, to use the phrase coined by Churchill.

Almost more surprising now, in retrospect, is that all those democracies belonging to the European Community, as it was then known, which not only shared political values and economic systems but had come together to fight shoulder-to-shoulder, back-to-back, within NATO, should have taken so long to break down their borders, unify their currencies and abolish border controls. Young people today have absorbed quite naturally freedom of movement and the euro. The whole world, though, is not governed by the same standards.

Alsace-Lorraine, Danzig, the Sudetenland and the Danube, thankfully, no longer have any meaning. They have become mere historical landmarks. Europeans, despite their problems, are living through something even better that the “Pax Romana” that Europe once enjoyed. There is a difference, though.

While “Romanization” was imposed with blood and fire and against the will of the people who lived in Europe then, “Pax Europa” has been won peacefully, by means of law, democracy and respect for the identity of the European peoples.

Will of the people

It is important to remember that the borders did not die a natural death, or fade away naturally. The Berlin Wall was brought down by the will of the citizens of East Germany, who chose to vote with their feet and seek asylum at the West German and other western embassies in Budapest and Prague. And by the vision of some leaders, such as then Hungarian Foreign Minister Gyula Horn, who personally cut the barbed wire between Hungary from Austria with a pair of wire cutters.

A pride in Europe is a legitimate pride. With all its difficulties, after all, the enlightened project is still alive across the continent. When Immanuel Kant spoke of “perpetual peace” between peoples, he was pointing to something that is very much like what the European Union has achieved.

Europeans have spent centuries trying to dominate each other: the British with their navy, the French with their Napoleonic armies, the Germans with their Panzer divisions. Now they have found a much more subtle method for invading countries. It is called “acquis communautaire”, the name by which the body of European Union law is known.

EU paperwork invasion

Instead of invading a country, the European Union, which has become bigger and postmodern, sends some two hundred thousand pages of legislation that the country concerned will have to incorporate into their national laws. And despite that, there is a queue to get into the Union. Croatia, which will join next year; Turkey, is trying to complete its accession negotiations, despite much struggle; and they will be followed by Macedonia, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo.

Those are the next frontiers of Europe that, if the European project survives, we will see disappear. Beyond it, there remains the post-Soviet space, from Belarus in the north, the last dictatorship in Europe, to the Caucasus, plagued with intractable conflicts, and the shore of the southern Mediterranean as well.

One criticism commonly heard is that Europe has become an irrelevant player on the world scene. That criticism is true in large part, but these photographs by Valerio Vincenzo show that such a role – irrelevant or not – has been witness to the end of borders between states and divisions between people. This is a noble task that others might also think worthwhile to pursue.

The article first appeared in El Pais Semanel. Translation by presseurop.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Head, ECFR Madrid
Senior Policy Fellow

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