An imperfect union

Tuesday November 6, 2012

In the midst of my obsessive poll tracking and pundit checking over the presidential election - a habit which reappears every four years like a bad rash - it was a welcome relief when the folks in Oslo quixotically handed the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union; it gave me something else to ponder. Their singular choice of the EU was more than an acknowledgement of the 60 years of reconciliation and political and economic ties between former enemies. The Nobel committee undoubtedly wanted to send a strong, clear message to the 27 EU partners: Don't jump ship.

It's been a rocky year for the EU. Multiple member states have sought economic bailouts; Greece is still mired in terrible - seemingly intractable - economic woes; and Spain's unemployment rate just hit a whopping 26 percent. Meanwhile, German Chancellor Angela Merkel continues to push a conservative austerity agenda for struggling states, while Christine Legarde - the French head of the International Monetary Fund - asserts that Greece deserves more time in which to wrestle with their deficits. The Merkel/Legarde tension reflects a rich history of distrust and animosity between France and Germany. The EU is anything but "at peace" right now.

Many southern Europeans claim they're at war - albeit economic - with the northern states. Certainly the tear gas residue hovering over Syntagma Square in Athens (during a visit from Merkel mid-October) lent an air of battle to the current situation. But Merkel, despite critiques that she is single-minded and not expansive in her thinking about the EU, recently acknowledged that she views the award as "an inducement and obligation at the same time." There's been a palpable shift in attitude in the Bundestag, the lower house of Germany's parliament. As Mary Lane reports in the Wall Street Journal, German lawmakers finally seem resigned to the need for extra loans to Greece. They fear Greek bankruptcy - and its subsequent exit from the euro - would wreak havoc in the currency zone at the very time that the EU appears to be taming its massive debt crisis. Perhaps they'll turn that wagging finger into a helping hand for the good of the financial union - regardless of how it smarts to do so.

Despite widespread European incredulity, it's not as if the Nobel committee had few candidates to consider for this year's prize. New York Times reporters Alan Cowell and Nicholas Kulish highlight that the Norwegian committee weighed 231 nominations before they settled on their winner. The Peace Prize has often been awarded to heads of state, diplomats or activists who have worked to end wars or fight economic injustice. But sometimes, as Cowell and Kulish write, its selection "reflects hope as much as achievement, seeking to bolster good intentions with a prestigious accolade that provides an unparalleled, if often contentious, global imprimatur." This was the case when President Barrack Obama earned the prize less than a year into his term. The overt message? Here's the prize, now do something with it. Thorbjørn Jagland, the prize panel's chairman, said as much about the EU choice. They wanted to send "a message to the European public of how important it is to secure what they have achieved on this continent." It is an exhortation to both remember the bitter past and reshape a more promising future.

Spain's astonishing new unemployment rate was the topic of a recent lunch conversation I had with some European friends. The discussion soon swung to what to do about Greece. One woman - sympathetic to the French position - thought Germany's austerity plans for Greece stymied any economic improvement. She pointed to the U.K.'s spending: "They didn't adopt austerity when things got really tough. They're in good shape now." Another, clearly supportive of Merkel's austerity position, disagreed: "We should cut Greece loose from the EU. We'd rebound faster without them. What are they doing in the EU, anyway?" With its strains and disagreements - nested in cultural and regional differences - the EU's imperfect alliance is not unlike our own awkward union.

Our peculiar, imperfect coalition is revealed in all its splendor and foulness each Election Day. The hostility and ideological frictions - between North and South, rich and poor, urban and rural - splash across our Electoral College maps in crimson and cobalt. And our unresolved issues of race, class, and gender bubble up into simultaneous accusations of voter disenfranchisement and voter fraud. When friends and family members lose sleep due to concern about the election's outcome, and each side voices worry in ominous tones, I take solace in the endurance of our Constitution and the regularity of our electoral process. Like Guardian reporters Luke Harding and Ian Traynor, who recently wrote of EU leaders reaction to the Nobel Prize and their "rapturously welcoming a boost to the bloc's sagging self-esteem," I find Election Day an exciting reminder of survival and durability.

A friend recently asked if perhaps I had rosecolored glasses about the election. It's not that. I am simply the product of two parents with very different - but useful - overarching worldviews. From my dad: There will never be a shortage of jerks in the world. From my mom: Everyone - and I do mean everyone - is a potential friend. Although I am too prone to hyperbole and anxiety at election time, I was raised by both my parents to respect the peaceful transfer of power and to value voting as a near sacred act. I hold our Constitution's aspirations and ideals in my heart and head, and they will temper my bitter disappoint - somewhat - if the Other Guy gets to nominate the next Supreme Court Justices.

Rebecca Balint writes about history, education and culture. She welcomes your comments at Read her blog at


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