To all my European friends -- from Portugal to Germany to Finland, and from Bulgaria to Slovenia to Ireland -- I'd just like to say: Nice job!
The Nobel Committee (http://www.nobelprize.org/nobelprizes/peace/laureates/2012/press.html) recently awarded its prestigious top prize to 500 million people who have, for the last 65 years, made a conscious decision to live together in peace and harmony: the European Union (EU). In the words of Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjorn Jagland, "The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU's most important result, the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights. The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace."
In my 2009 book "Travel as a Political Act," I wrote:
For the EU's founders, money took a backseat to their primary motivation: peace. Even the biggest Euroskeptic recognizes that, in weaving together the economies of former enemies like France and Germany, everyone has become so interconnected that Europe will never again suffer devastation from a major war as they did twice in the last century. The French and the Germans still don't agree on most things. But now they've become too financially interdependent to take up arms over their differences. Minimizing the possibility of an intra-European war is the triumph of the EU.
When boots do hit the ground in a war, Europeans believe it's because they have failed to prevent it. They prefer endless diplomacy to once-in-a-while war. Europe's reluctance to go to war frustrates some Americans. I believe their relative pacifism is because Europeans know the reality of war, while most Americans do not. Of course, if you have a loved one who has fought or died in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Vietnam, you know what a war is. But as a society, the U.S. can't remember actually hosting a war. Europeans have told me that they believe Americans were more willing to use cluster bombs and napalm to pacify Fallujah because in the age of modern warfare, no American city has ever been wiped from existence like Coventry, Dresden, Rotterdam, or Warsaw. It's easier to feel detached when a war is something you watch on the nightly news, rather than something that killed your grandfather or destroyed your hometown.
Europe knows what a war is. It ripped itself to shreds twice within my grandparents' lifetime. Consider France in World War I. France (with one-quarter as many people as we have) lost as many people as we've lost in the entire Iraq War -- over 4,000 people -- in one day ... many times. They lost as many people as we lost in Vietnam (60,000) in one month. And then it happened again and again until, by the end of World War I, an estimated half of all the men in France between the ages of 15 and 30 were casualties. When some Americans, frustrated at France's reluctance to follow us into a war, call the French "surrender monkeys," I believe it shows their ignorance of history. ...
In 1947, in the rubble of a bombed-out Europe, Euro-visionaries assembled and agreed that they needed to overcome the hell that they were bringing upon themselves every couple of generations with these wars. Their solution was to unite. Of course, a union is nothing without people giving up some measure of real sovereignty. Since 1947, proponents of a European Union have been convincing the people of proud and independent nations to trade away bits and pieces of their independence. It's a tough sell. But in a fitful evolution -- two steps forward and one step back -- over the last 60 or so years, they have created a European union."
Yes, Europe has had its economic woes the last few years. (Who hasn't?) But a bold and ambitious experiment like the European Union is bound to have some growing pains, as member states with starkly different lifestyles, priorities, and fiscal philosophies are now sharing one big pot. Spain and Greece get all the press for their 25 percent unemployment and isolated riots, but more than half of the 27 EU members are currently not in recession -- and several (Poland, the Baltic States) are enjoying impressive growth. Remember: Europe still has the biggest economy on earth (2011 GDP: $17.33 trillion in the EU vs. $15.09 trillion in the U.S.), and as any traveler who has recently experienced sticker shock abroad can tell you, the euro currency is still mighty healthy. Europe's vast investment in infrastructure has laced together a remarkable free-trade zone of superhighways and bullet trains that make it easier than ever to get around. The fact is, while some of its members are struggling, most EU citizens are much better off today than they were five, 10, 20, or 50 years ago.
Naysayers continue to predict the imminent collapse of Europe. But what these people don't understand is that European unity is not just a convenient political talking point that's easily abandoned in tough times. It's a way of life that most Europeans deeply believe in. While "Euroskeptics" complain loud and hard about the many failings of the EU -- just as American politicians wrangle over differing viewpoints -- ultimately Europeans believe as fiercely in unity, cooperation, and celebrating diversity as Americans believe in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I'm sure many stateside critics will scoff at this prize. They'll say that the Europeans are rewarding themselves for their "failing" system. (This misses the fact that the Norwegians who awarded the prize are not, themselves, EU citizens.) These critics, blinded by their own agenda, are missing the historical long view, which tells an astonishing success story. Sixty-seven years ago, Europe was rubble and millions were dead. With the generous kick-start of the Marshall Plan and visionary leaders pushing a pacifistic, economy-growing agenda, Europeans transformed their continent. Today there are few more prosperous and more peaceful places on earth. War between its members is unimaginable. Even the most hardened cynic can't deny ... Europe is doing something right.
The union and its forerunners have for more than six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe. ... Since 1945, that reconciliation has become a reality. The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a 70-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today, war between Germany and France is unthinkable. This shows how, through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners.
Again, Europe -- nice job! You deserve it.
(Rick Steves (http://www.ricksteves.com) writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow his blog on Facebook.)