Explaining the Nobel Committee's decision to grant the Peace Price to the EU, its Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland argued that European unification has transformed Europe "from a continent of wars to a continent of peace". It has been objected that the prize for this shouldn't go to the EU but to NATO. There is some truth to this claim. During the Cold War, NATO has indeed protected western Europe from falling into the Soviet sphere of influence, and it has replaced a fragile balance between roughly equal European powers with a largely benevolent hegemony. And Washington has encouraged the project of European unification from its very inception.
But under the umbrella of NATO's "outer peace", European leaders have built something larger and deeper - a structure that promotes "inner peace" in Europe: the EU and its predecessors. European unification has created a partly integrated European society. Together NATO and EU have achieved something that failed between World War I and II: turning Europe into a safe homeland for a market economy and liberal democracy, a bastion of freedom, security, and prosperity.
The EU and its predecessors can claim four major geopolitical achievements: transforming centuries-old Franco-German hostility into friendship; stabilizing democracy in Greece, Portugal, and Spain after their transition away from autocracy; easing the process of German unification and making the country's unification palatable to its neighbours; guiding the transition to democracy of central and eastern Europe following the demise of the Soviet Union.
Today the EU is weaving a dense net of relationships and interactions across borders. Governments communicate every day and on every level. Officials are used to cooperating and coordinating with Brussels and other member states. Companies operate in a giant single market. People travel and relocate with unprecedented ease. A cosmopolitan elite deeply attached to the EU has emerged. Borders are not barriers anymore. The daily experience of being embedded in a larger pan-European context makes war look like a strange, incomprehensible evil belonging to a distant past. A dream has come true.
But these fundamental achievements are at risk today. The euro crisis has made the EU look clumsy and inefficient. Euroskepticism has become fashionable. In the UK it is even mainstream now.
The biggest threat is disintegration. A Greek exit has been prevented - governments have looked into the abyss and decided that Greece must stay, whatever the costs. But now Britain is considering leaving, and a majority of Brits actually want the UK out. Britain has always been a reluctant participant in what it has seen as a mainly continental project, built around French-German reconciliation. The eurozone troubles have led many in the UK to conclude that the whole enterprise is doomed.
A British exit could be the first step towards the unravelling of the EU. It might lead to a chain reaction. Other countries that feel close to Britain, in northern and eastern Europe could also reconsider their relations with the EU. The EU would lose its attraction and relevance. An EU reduced to a frustrated, weakening France and a needy South with Germany as the unwilling paymaster would not hold together for long. Moreover, Britain's active participation in the EU is essential, as it belongs in the centre of decision-making. London must be the tireless advocate of liberalism and build a counterweight to French and German statist and bureaucratic instincts. The EU relies on a specific cocktail of political ideas, traditions, and cultures; Britain represents an essential part of the mix. And without the UK, the EU could give up on the hope of becoming a global player. Britain has assets, experience, and know-how that are vital to a serious foreign and security policy. And only if Paris and London team up, can they move an inward-looking, reluctant, strongly pacifist Germany toward a more activist foreign policy approach.