Who's Got It Right About the European Union: David Cameron or Alfred Nobel?

Co-authored with Jane Shevtsov

Trying to follow the news about the European Union these days may be a whiplash hazard.

Just seven weeks ago, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the EU with the Nobel Peace Prize. Last week, however, British Prime Minister David Cameron promised that if his party won the 2015 election, the United Kingdom would hold a referendum on EU membership - "in or out."

Despite their apparent differences, the prime minister and the committee seem to agree that the EU has brought a real and enduring peace to what was for centuries an eternally war-torn land. Before skewering the EU bureaucracy, Mr. Cameron painted a vivid picture of how far Europe had come since the end of World War II. "What Churchill described as the twin marauders of war and tyranny," he said, "have been almost entirely banished from our continent." Similarly, because Alfred Nobel's will instructed the committee to celebrate efforts directed toward "fraternity between the nations," and "the abolition ... of standing armies," it is hard to think of a more deserving champion in all the prize's 111 years.

Many members of the commentariat these days, on both sides of the Atlantic, agree with the British prime minister in portraying the EU as a fiscal, economic, and environmental mess. Radical policy proposals and blistering political reproaches fly back and forth relentlessly. In such an atmosphere it becomes easy to lose sight of arguably the most remarkable historical accomplishment of the past 2/3 of a century: the complete disappearance of war everywhere within the territory of the EU, from the Irish Sea to the Aegean, from the Arctic Circle to the Straits of Gibraltar.

In 1945, Europeans looked out over a continent that had been devastated by two wars in the space of a generation. Few saw much reason to believe that the most recent war would be the last - and the next might begin, rather than end, with the atomic bomb. So Mr. Cameron's predecessor, that same Winston Churchill, in order to confront this widespread despair, suggested to an audience in Zurich in 1946: "We must build a kind of United States of Europe ... which could give a sense of enlarged patriotism and common citizenship to the distracted peoples of this turbulent and mighty continent."

The unfolding of Churchill's vision began with the most prosaic things imaginable: coal and steel. In 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman put forth a proposal for a European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), to create a tariff-free market for these commodities in the participating countries. The goal was to make war between France and Germany "not merely unthinkable but materially impossible."

Yet Schuman understood that internationalizing coal and steel production would hardly be enough to do the job. If the will to fight was strong enough, replacements for these materials could always be found. Rather, the ECSC was to be only "a first step" in an ultimate goal which he showed no hesitation in articulating.

"We are carrying out a great experiment," said Schuman, "the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream that for ten centuries has revisited the peoples of Europe: creating between them an organization putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace. ... Our century, that has witnessed the catastrophes resulting in the unending clash of nationalities and nationalisms, must attempt and succeed in reconciling nations in a supranational association. This would safeguard the diversities and aspirations of each nation while coordinating them in the same manner as the regions are coordinated within the unity of the nation."

That analogy, between the structures of governance in an evolving European Union and those already existing within national unions, stood at the center of the model. On the city, state, and national levels in most of the world today, we maintain elected legislatures to make law, elected executives to carry out law, courts to interpret law, and police to enforce law. Moreover, each of those levels focuses upon the issues most appropriately addressed at that particular scale. (That is why in the United States, for example, we see a federal minimum wage - to prevent states and localities from competing downward with each other in a "race to the bottom" - but no federal parking violations bureau.) Political parties and advocacy groups exist at every level, and collaborate on the city, state, and national levels. Is it really such a stretch to suppose that these basic principles - democracy, federalism, political parties, and collective political action -- might be extended someday to larger supranational levels as well?

The "enlarged patriotism" that Churchill identified also remains at the core of the EU ambition. The founders of the EU hoped that individuals on the continent would think of themselves less and less as Germans or Belgians or Spaniards, and eventually first and foremost as Europeans. The American example once again provides precedent, since it is probably fair to say that before 1865, citizens of the United States thought of themselves primarily as Michiganders or Virginians or Vermonters, but thereafter primarily as Americans. And some among us today dream of a tomorrow when most human beings think of themselves less and less as Americans or Russians or Brazilians, but instead first and foremost as Earthlings. Who are all in the same boat. Or perhaps instead, in the science fiction author Spider Robinson's memorable phrase, who are all crewmates on Spaceship Earth.

Indeed, those who launched the great postwar quest for European unity hoped that the model might eventually be extended to wider circles still. Jean Monnet, first president of the ECSC and widely considered with Schuman as chief founder of the EU idea, said in his memoirs in 1976, "We cannot stop. ... The Community we have created is not an end in itself ... Like our provinces in the past, our nations today must learn to live together under common rules and institutions ... The sovereign nations of the past can no longer solve the problems of the present ... And the Community itself is only a stage on the way to the organized world of the future."

That dream continues to assert itself on the continent. To choose but one example, a persistent advocacy group known as JEF - Young European Federalists - maintains 30,000 members across 30 European countries, calls itself a "supranational, politically pluralistic youth NGO," and proclaims unapologetically that its goal is "the creation of a democratic European federation as a crucial ingredient for peace, a guarantee for a more free, just and democratic society, and a first step towards a world federation."

Jean Monnet was hardly the first to envision a progression from the continental to the planetary level. In the 19th century Victor Hugo, the greatest of all French writers, had proclaimed, "A day will come when a cannon will be a museum-piece ... and we will be amazed to think that these things once existed! ... A day will come when the bullets and bombs are replaced by ... a great supreme senate which will be to Europe what Parliament is to England, the Diet to Germany, and the Legislative Assembly to France. ... There will issue from it first the United States of Europe, then the United States of the World." The British poet laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson imagined a day when the "war-drum throbbed no longer, and the battle flags were furl'd, in the Parliament of Man, the Federation of the World." The Persian founder of the Baha'i faith, Baha'u'llah, insisted that "The Earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens." And the century before that saw the publication of Perpetual Peace by Immanuel Kant in 1795 (which included the requirement that "standing armies shall in time be totally abolished"), and A Lasting Peace Through the Federation of Europe by Jean Jacques Rousseau in 1756.

So let us imagine the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize in, oh, 2087 - exactly 75 years after the Norwegian Nobel Committee recognized the great achievement of the European Union. This time, the prize goes to another EU -- the recently founded Earth Union. For the final realization of the European Union's "great experiment." For the establishment of "a Parliament of Humanity" to enact enforceable world law. For "the fulfillment of the same recurrent dream ... putting an end to war and guaranteeing an eternal peace ... by reconciling nations in a supranational association." And for at last bringing about the ancient vision held by Alfred Nobel and Immanuel Kant and countless others -- "the abolition of standing armies."

It is not so very difficult to imagine our nascent 21st Century unfolding in such a fashion. Since everything else - our economies, our communications, our single planetary environment - succumbs more completely to globalization every day, shouldn't we eventually bring about a complete globalization of our structures of governance as well? And what could possibly do more to benefit the human condition than to chart a course not just to end this war or to prevent that war, but to end war?

After all, it was Victor Hugo who also said, "No army can withstand the strength of an idea whose time has come."

Jane Shevtsov recently received her Ph.D. in systems ecology from the University of Georgia, currently teaches and performs research in mathematical biology at UCLA, and is cofounder of www.worldbeyondborders.org. Tad Daley is author of the book APOCALYPSE NEVER: Forging the Path to a Nuclear Weapon-Free World (Rutgers Press 2010 and in paperback 2012), and directs the Project on Abolishing War, www.abolishingwar.org, at the Center for War/Peace Studies in New York.