Did the EU Cause Peace?

So the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize today for “ for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” It is easy to make fun of this given the current crisis but there is certainly an argument to be made that the long term contributions of the EU and its predecessors compare favorably to past winners. After all, Europe is now a continent of economically advanced democracies that has avoided major war for over six decades. Given its violent history this is a remarkable achievement.

The question is, of course, what did the EU have to do with this achievement? Empirically this question poses a mighty   counterfactual challenge: what would have happened if European countries had not integrated in the way they have? Yet we do have some plausible theories that can help us think through the ways in which the EU may have made a difference.

The first are (neo-)functionalist theories that roughly follow Jean Monnet’s logic. The core idea is that cooperation between states in seemingly narrow areas can create spillover effects that spur further integration. The European Coal and Steel Community was created in 1951 with this in mind. The creation of a common market in coal and steel between six states, including recent foes France, West-Germany, and Italy, would create new demands for functional integration in other areas. Neo-functionalists like Ernst Haas pointed to the crucial role of international bureaucrats and interest groups in this process. This process heightens the prospects for peace as it eventually leads to more political integration. Despite cries that EU is not currently a political union, it does have a directly elected parliament and makes most of its decisions by qualified majority rule (meaning that no single state can block them). Moreover, the surrender of authority to institutions like the European Central Bank directly affects the prospects of war by making financing through printing money more difficult.

Other liberal theorists such as Andrew Moravcsik are skeptical that these supranational actors have this much authority. They argue instead that the EU has been created through a series of intergovernmental bargains (treaties) through which states deliberately and voluntarily surrender some authority. Governments do so primarily in response to the demands of domestic actors, such as domestic producers who want to increase their market access. The EU’s contribution to peace hinges mostly on the validity of Kantian Peace Theory: the idea that democracies with open markets and a modicum of international law can create a separate peaceful sphere. The EU has helped preserve peace because it has locked in democracy and free trade; not due to the efforts from its international bureaucrats.

A third perspective argues that the EU has contributed to creating a common identity among European citizens. Increased movement of people and goods as well as common institutions have led especially young people to increasingly identify as Europeans. There is not necessarily a contradiction between vibrant national and European identities. Indeed, some research shows that people who strongly identify with their nations are more rather than less likely to identify themselves as Europeans. This common identification with Europe, the theory goes, makes it less likely that citizens will view war with other Europeans as an attractive option.

Some Realists, such as John Mearsheimer and Sebastian Rosato, counter that all this attention for the EU lacks merit. Peace in Europe was a function of the Cold War and the security umbrella provided by the United States and nuclear weapons. They point out that for all the integration that Europe has seen, it still has no true common foreign and security policy and it is unlikely to develop one because states will simply not surrender their sovereignty on the issue that is most sacred to them: their security. Indeed an early attempt to create more integration along these lines failed miserably. Mearsheimer argued in the early 1990s that with the end of the Cold War institutions such as NATO and the European Community would disintegrate and that Europe would return to its age old equilibrium: instability and the constant threat of war.

The Realist argument about the importance of the U.S. security umbrella is probably correct. Yet, the dire predictions regarding the future of European integration have yet to materialize. Indeed, the EU sped up its integration considerably with the end of the Cold War; creating deeper institutions and adding fifteen new member states. The integration of the Eastern European former socialist states has not gone without difficulties. Yet, given the scale of the problem, I would argue that it has gone a lot better than it plausible would have without the EU. The promise of EU membership markedly improved democracy, human rights and market economy in all states, although it remains imperfect progress in some. The EU certainly has its share of difficulties, major missteps,  and structural deficiencies. Ultimately, however, my best guess is that Europe is a more peaceful, prosperous, and democratic continent thanks to the EU. A Peace Prize much deserved.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Erik Voeten

Erik Voeten is the Peter F. Krogh associate professor of geopolitics and global justice at Georgetown University.