"I THINK THE WHOLE THING IS A NONSENSE" said UKIP leader Nigel Farage. French President Francois Hollande thought it was an "immense honour" and Angela Merkel, Europe's most powerful leader, said it was a "wonderful decision". They were of course referring to the European Union being named as the 2012 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Within minutes of the news, media outlets were lambasting the decision, citing the financial instability, social crises and increasingly widespread euro-scepticism currently sweeping across the continent. But the award was not bestowed upon the EU for its monetary policies or bail-out efforts. The EU and its forerunners received recognition because, for six decades, they have "contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe."
If your European history is a bit rusty, then it is useful to know that after World War Two, France, West Germany, Italy and the Benelux states banded together to prevent another rise of extreme nationalism from devastating the continent. In 1951 they formed the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) to pool their national heavy industries in a common market; the idea being that countries that are reliant on each other don't go to war with each other. In 1957, the cooperative movement was reformed into the European Economic Community (EEC) and in 1973, the EEC enlarged to include Ireland and the United Kingdom. Further expansion occurred throughout the 1980's and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, the European Union as we know it was created. Today, the EU is a political and economic union consisting of 27 member states.
Despite functioning for six decades, many people are still uncertain about the entire European project. There is an astounding lack of awareness amongst European citizens in Scotland and the UK as to what exactly the EU is, what it does and what would happen if we were not a part of it. This is mainly because most people in the UK have very little interest in European politics. It is also true that good news makes bad stories. Consequently, most of the reporting coming out of Europe focuses on scandal and negativity rather than anything positive being done by EU policymakers.
Sure, the EU has been responsible for an incredible amount of bureaucracy and red tape. In fact, there is so much red tape emanating from Brussels that the average small business spends seven hours every week trying to comply with EU legislation. As a result, 1.7 million small and medium enterprises fail in the EU every year.
Politicians at the European Parliament are regularly ridiculed for interfering in small technical issues which should actually be left to scientists and experts. This reflects their desire to be seen doing something about an issue rather than actually understanding the matter at hand. Brussels is frequently accused of stripping member states of their sovereign powers in order to promote deeper integration. The EU's legitimacy has also been questioned and many commentators claim that there is a 'democratic deficit', meaning that the institutions of the European Union lack democratic accountability.
Yes, the European Union could do with some reform. But regardless of what you think about its policies or the endless red tape, the fact is that the EU has helped to ensure security, maintain peace, entrench democracy and prevent conflict within its borders since the ECSC first opened for business in 1951. Euro-sceptics will undoubtedly question such claims, but the key word here is 'prevent'.
Those who advocate preventative measures leave themselves open to attack from sceptics, mainly because the costs of the initiatives can not be measured against their results. Evaluation of preventative measures is nearly impossible because results are unseen and therefore hard to analyse. If preventative measures are successful, nothing changes. It is only with hindsight that they can really be assessed. Only when they fail and crisis unfolds can their true value be gauged.
In this regard, the European Union is similar to servicing a boiler.
Many people are sceptical of boiler servicing. There is a suspicion that very little is done during a boiler service and it is more of a work creation scheme dreamed up by lazy gas engineers. Similar to the EU, many people have little idea about what it is, why it is needed and what happens if we don't have one.
Put simply, boiler servicing involves checking, cleaning and testing the boiler systems. It is basically pre-emptive fault-spotting to ensure that nothing is broken or about to break. Different companies have widely differing ideas about how to service a boiler. At one extreme, some engineers will do little more than probe the flue outlet to analyse the contents of the flue gasses. At the other, there are engineers who check the pipework, ventilation and clearances before taking everything to pieces, cleaning, reassembling and thoroughly testing every single aspect of the boiler for safe and correct operation.
If boiler services are not carried out regularly, the chances are that everything will be fine. But you can't know for sure. A wide variety of things can go wrong and anyone who has had a problematic boiler knows only too well that problems are costly, take a long time to fix and can cause irreparable damage.
Can the same not be said for the European Union? There are numerous EU institutions which monitor, check and test systems of governance within member states and 'clean' them if they are not up to scratch. Differing political groups have widely varying ideas about what the EU should be doing. Some do little more than 'probe' the European institutions whereas others are only too happy to deepen EU integration.
Just like servicing a boiler, the chances are that everything would be fine if the European Union did not exist, but we can't know for sure and should we take that risk? What if there was no political union? Would tensions escalate over everyday matters that are currently resolved by the EU? Just like an unserviced boiler, we cannot predict what would go wrong, what type of irreparable damage would be caused, how long it would take to fix and how costly it would be.
With the EU's economic crisis deepening daily and member states like Greece imploding, the time may well have come for radical change or even complete withdrawal from the European project. But preventing a tumultuous future is different from recognising a successful past. Whilst there are surely more deserving recipients for this year's Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Committee has correctly recognised that the European Union and its predecessors have indeed contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.