Friday, 12 October 2012

A Desert Called Peace

Not for the first time, the Norwegian Nobel Committee have courted controversy in their choice of laureate for the Peace Prize: this year, it has been granted to the entire European Union for promoting the cause of peace

Now, for many who support the European Ideal of a Continent living in peace and harmony with itself, its nations linked fraternally rather than in the constant combat which is much of Europe's tribal history, the EU was once favoured as a potential vehicle for bringing this aspiration to life. But reality has not in truth borne such hopes to fruition and now of all times seems perhaps the least appropriate moment to laud this institution.

Consider that in just the last year:

- leading EU members France and Britain lobbied hard and took the lead in the bombing of Libya, causing literally billions of Euros-worth of damage and killing unknown numbers of Libyans (no count was made). The bombing/missile campaign was at one point so intense that the Britain and France ran out of munitions and had to borrow more from Germany. (Notably, although not part of the EU, Norway also took part in this along with Denmark).

- in spite of the Arab Spring, EU states continued to send Government Ministers and officials out to arms fayres in the Middle East, the Abu Dhabi one in particular being the largest in history, selling weapons indiscriminately. France and Britain are both in the top 4 countries for arms exports in the world. Got the cash? get the guns! Who doesn't remember British PM Dave Cameron's sickeningly hypocritical visit to Tahrir Square in the midst of the protests against the Egyptian military regime? There he was, pathetically hailing the calls for democracy while, in his entourage, arms merchants were busily proffering their business cards to the same military who continued to undermine progress to democracy until President Morsi just a few weeks ago finally asserted some control over the wayward armed services.

In 2010, the European Parliament debated arms exports from the EU - their main findings centred not on the need to curb these revenue earning sales, but rather on the need for greater co-ordination between European arms manufacturers who apparently have not been co-ordinating sales properly with each other. So the EU, supposedly the paragon of free trade, appears to want to stitch up some sort of arms selling cartel to maximise the financial benefits of peddling weapons around the planet.

- and within Europe itself, while there may be little real prospect for the foreseeable future of a war between nations inside the EU, the rising social conflict brought about by the straight-jacket that is the Eurozone austerity programme and the overweening, neoliberal European Central Bank hardly makes Europe a region of tranquillity. Just this week in Greece, the cradle of democracy, we have seen scores of leftwing protesters tortured by the authorities for protesting against the extreme right Golden Dawn party (now the third largest in the country) and in one appalling incident, a young woman protester shackled and marched through Athens by the police to be used as a human shield against protesters demonstrating against the visit of the cuts-wielding German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

This woman was handcuffed and used as a "shield" by Greek police.
On peace, the EU has a mixed and unhappy record: it is true it has at times found just about enough unity to strike out on mildly different initiatives from the USA on the Palestinian question, but to little avail. And when there was a major conflict on its doorstep in Bosnia and Croatia from 1992 to 1995, it seemed paralysed or, even worse, covertly encouraging of the Serbian leadership as it "ethnically cleansed" towns and cities of Bosnian Muslims. Over 100,000 lives were lost and although Europe did fund and participate in the still shaky reconstruction of the country, it failed totally to stop the conflict and we live to this day with the geopolitical consequences - it was there in the Balkans rather than anywhere else that many young Muslims first became attracted to the Islamist claims about the West's hostility to their faith.

The Nobel Peace Prize has been given to surprising recipients in the past - Henry Kissinger received it while he was bombing Laos (though at least he was doing so in secret!) and President Obama was handed it before he even took office in what must be a unique instance of giving a prize in anticipation of some success - given his track record, you might think they would want it back. But then, they hand it to the EU (it feels troubling that this is now seen as a "person" - the prize is meant to be given to a human being under its remit).

Alfred Nobel of course was no man of peace - he invented dynamite and owned the huge arms manufacturing company Bofors, which profited immensely from the First World War. So the whole thing reeks of hypocrisy and we probably shouldn't be too surprised that as the EU sinks further into its current socio-economic mess, the international Establishment may see the award as something to buttress its tattered reputation.

Europe's history has for centuries been one of conflict - interestingly, the only two periods of apparent sustained peace before now have striking parallels to the EU's current dilemma of crisis at home and war abroad. In the eleventh century, the only international institution on the Continent, the Catholic Church, proclaimed crusade and directed the energies of warring nobles towards the Muslim states on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean, giving Europe some respite from their constant quarrelling and fighting. The people of the Middle east, however, including many non-Catholic Christians, would have had a rather different experience, far from peaceful.

And earlier still, the Romans conquered almost the entire Continent. They imposed a single currency; they created a single government; they homogenised city society; and they exported their wars into the forests of eastern Germany and the mountains of Persia. The Pax Romana held for several centuries, albeit often turbulently, before collapsing before the German invasions.

And yet when it happened, few mourned Rome. For, as even the Roman historian Tacitus acknowledged, the Pax Romana was not to the benefit of all; it crushed and damaged and imposed a false unity that forever belied its claims of Universal Triumph and Benefit. Rome was an authoritarian regime, its armies and spies crushing opposition when not fighting each other - and so the "peace" achieved was more than a little hollow.

Similarly now: what may appear to be an amazing achievement of decades of peace in Europe needs to be tempered with the fact that this was for a long time set against the context of the Cold War, NATO and the Warsaw Pact, and a lot of bloodshed via proxies outside of the Continent. The European Ideal is a wonderful one - but, a bit like the myth of the Pax Romana, it perhaps remains just that - an ideal, not a reality. And so perhaps we should view the Nobel Peace Prize award for the EU as being of the same level of hubris as the Emperors' when held their Victory parades in war after war in supposedly Eternal Rome.

When he recorded the history of his father-in-law Agricola's expedition to Caledonia (now Scotland), he attributed to an enemy chief, Calgacus, the chilling words in which he described the Roman Mission to his warriors: words which echo chillingly through the centuries to whisper in the ear of Europa Moderna:

"Solitudinem faciunt, pacem appellant" - They make a desert, and call it peace.

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