Did the EU Cause Peace?

by Erik Voeten on October 12, 2012 · 9 comments

in International Relations

So the EU won the Nobel Economics 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.



reader October 12, 2012 at 10:34 am

How often, and how much more spectacularly, can Mearsheimer be wrong before we stop citing the guy? He has made a career of saying silly, controversial things that get him cited. I guess he’s a useful idiot in that way, but, seriously. I’d say much the same about another of the folks you identify by name, but at least that one has the virtue of not saying things that are potentially catastrophically dangerous (a la Mearsheimer on nuclear proliferation).

I am going to avoid the overall causal inference question, because I just don’t have time to be serious about it. I think you pose the right questions and lay out the terrain very well. I would just say that we need a better science of the Monnet Method than neofunctional integration theory. The more I teach and reflect on the long-run development of the EU (and the pacfication of Europe, etc.), the more I think Monnet was an absolute genius.

Arturito October 12, 2012 at 10:45 am

That’s a joke. The zionist’ main supporter against palestinians, the “bomb democratizer” of islamic countries, the main opresor of their own people, a Nobel Prize.

This isn’t strange in a crew that acknowledged the same prize to Kissinger and Obomb.

Sumantra October 12, 2012 at 10:59 am

Mearsheimer must be judged according to the time of his publication. One can’t be right always…he was not right about Germany falling back to hegemonic ambitions, but he was right about the folly of Ukraine giving up nukes, and coerced by Russia. Overall his thesis was Europe would be anarchic in the coming future after Cold War…he is quite right that way…specifics maybe be different. EU ofcourse did a lot for peace…since 1950. In that case the Nobel Peace this time should also jointly go to United States European Command, Strategic Forces Command, German Marshall Fund and NATO. Other than external cohesive forces, it is hard to imagine Europe being Europe. Also, the underbelly, racial tones, economic problems and fissures are showing again, with the decline of US influence, internal bickering of an expanding and diluting uneven NATO, and loss of trade comparative advantage and competition.

Just my two cents…hard to resist a good debate being an IR researcher!

idiot October 12, 2012 at 11:44 am

Of course, Meashimer was wrong to suggest that Europe would return to bloody war following the end of the Cold War. Everyone knows for a fact that the crisis in the Balkans was resolved peacefully when everyone all agreed to peacefully partition Yugoslavia into its constituent parts. Nobody ever thought about committing genocide or establishing a “Greater Serbia”. All those refugees were just permanent tourists, out to enjoy the rest of Europe because peace is just “oh so boring”. Milosevic too decided on a permanent vacation of his own, voluntarily left Serbia to attend The Hague.

Also, the Chinese embassy in Belgrade just exploded spontaneously when an American plane flew over it during peace celebrations.

Toby October 12, 2012 at 12:37 pm

I think it would be prudent for you to acknowledge that Mearsheimer conceded the argument about alliances like NATO to Keohane and Nye given their dependence on one another to secure their military needs and project power. There is nothing inherently anti-realist in neofunctionalist or neoliberal IR theory, it just explains how cooperation can exist within a “game of states”. Mearsheimer also mistakenly predicted that international organizations would be less important after the Cold War. What was he actually expecting though? A true unipolar moment? That moment is definitely gone, and if integration is any measure of it, the EU was well ahead of its time since integration sped up after the Asian financial crisis, and went into high gear when the USSR collapsed. Thanks for mentioning neofunctionalism. My heart really needed that.

This award is well-earned. Reading the tears of critics that expect a perfect Captain Planet foreign policy from Europe capable of containing cognitive dissonance over human rights and respect for oppressive regimes – is just darling to read.

John October 12, 2012 at 1:14 pm

The remarkable success of European integration as a project of peace is often eclipsed by the difficulties it faces in trying to coordinate policies effectively in the face of crises (financial or security), on the one hand, and by deeply embedded norms of liberal democracy and capitalism that underlie European politics, on the other. Both of these, in fact, are testaments to the success of the European project. The fact that the European states continue to try and govern the problems they confront collectively, in spite of the frustrations and difficulties of coordinating policies in 27 countries, speaks to the success of the European project. The EU was never meant to bring an end to the frustrations and inevitable failures that mark political struggle, but it was intended to change the tenor and means through which that struggle is enacted. The project of European integration has successfully led Europe away from the balance of power world they inhabited for centuries and towards a highly institutionalized international environment where conflicts of interest are managed through diplomacy rather than war.

Others point to the seeming inevitability of postwar European integration, be it due to the bipolar structure of the Cold War or because of the demands of postwar interdependence (or both), and argue that the EU was an expression rather than a cause of these more fundamental realities. But it is easy to overlook just how contingent and novel the creation of the European Union was, particularly in the early 1950s. Immediately after WWII, many decision-makers, particularly in France, pushed for a set of policies similar to those adopted after WWI: highly punitive and designed to permanently weaken Germany. It was only due to the vision and ambition of a number of French and German politicians that an alternative approach to peace and security was adopted, one that took the bold step of not only embracing the need for Franco-German reconciliation but also of constructing a series of novel “supranational” institutions to govern their relations. European cooperation now seems de rigueur, but it was far from a foregone conclusion in the early postwar period. Indeed, the seeming inevitability of postwar European peace is perhaps the greatest testament to the success of the project of European integration.

Matt_L October 13, 2012 at 10:51 am

This. We have a counter example in the form of the Warsaw Treaty Organization and the COMECON. Soviet policy sought to maintain the peace in Eastern Europe through a policy of divide and rule. The WTO and COMECON did little to foster cooperation in any area and it shows in the post-Cold War policies of every country from the former Soviet Bloc. Like sunflowers their foreign policy turned to the West and Brussels. Instead of actually cooperating with one another each country raced to gain admission to NATO and then the EU. Now each country seeks partners in the west instead of figuring out how to work with one another.

During the Cold War the US could have pursued a similar recipe of divide and rule in the West, but did not. The continuing cooperation among the political elites in the EU is a good thing. Better still if they could actually democratize EU institutions and allow their own citizens to participate in EU governance and decision making.

Darin Self October 13, 2012 at 9:41 pm

I guess the EU is a better candidate than the U.S. Research I’ve done showed that U.S. sanctions were effective in causing autocratic backsliding while EU sanctions had no significant correlation with changes in regime.


reader October 16, 2012 at 11:35 pm

“The fact that the European states continue to try and govern the problems they confront collectively, in spite of the frustrations and difficulties of coordinating policies in 27 countries, speaks to the success of the European project. ”


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: