When I heard the news that the European Union would receive this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, my first thought was: This must be a joke.
After all, the current European debt crisis has led to economic, civil and political unrest and uncertainty throughout the continent. It has cast a pall over markets worldwide. In fact, I would go so far as to say that the potential calamity posed by the debt crisis could have the same devastating effect on the global markets as an impending war.
So why, with the very real, looming threat of a crippling economic meltdown, would the Norwegian Nobel Committee honor the EU with its prestigious prize? The irony of the situation is eye-catching. Even the official announcement of this year’s prize, to be given in Stockholm on Dec. 10, stated the obvious. “The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest.”
The release goes on to say, “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.”
It’s true that the EU’s primary purpose was to preclude another world war, and I certainly don’t intend to downplay the significance of six decades of relative peace following the horrors of World War I and II. I’ll leave it to others to debate how much of the credit for that should accrue to the EU and its forerunners.
The point I’m making is that peace is not merely the absence of war. Peace without security, or even a remote hope of a better life, is tenuous at best, cruel at worst.
For example, in Greece and Spain unemployment is now over 25 percent and youth unemployment tops 50 percent. The U.S. has just come through a bruising presidential election where one of the main issues was an unemployment rate that hovered above 8 percent for most of three years. Take just a few moments to consider what it must be like to live in a country where one in four are unemployed and more than half of young people are out of work.
Collectively—although there are exceptions, with Germany first and foremost—the EU is struggling to deal with a level of debt that is simply not sustainable. And incremental changes, such as lengthening the work week, will not be enough to dig out of a hole that resembles the Grand Canyon.
How did the EU get into this mess in the first place? Crushing government debt in some member countries is a huge factor. Add in the financial collapse fueled by the bursting real estate bubble and continued slow growth, and you have a perfect storm of economic instability.
Unfortunately, there are citizens living on the continent in countries like Greece and Spain who think about career planning with the overlay of “but of course there is always work in the government sector for me.” There is almost a feeling that the government owes it to them.
Talk about the ultimate government safety net. Here in the U.S., we have had our own spirited debates over how much of a role government should play in providing a safety net for such potentially life-and-death issues as health care, disability, and those who are born into or fall into poverty.
But the notion that government owes you a career or a job is not sustainable. Anywhere.
I’m not saying that public sector employment caused Greece’s financial collapse. There were many complicated factors. But it certainly didn’t help.
Sadly, for many Americans, the EU debt crisis is an abstraction, something that’s happening “over there.” But if you have money in the stock market you have a personal stake in how it turns out. That perfect storm I talked about before? It’s still threatening to wreak havoc on the world markets. Make no mistake: The effects will be felt on our shores.
There is an important lesson for America with what is happening in Europe. We should take a good hard look in the mirror. As a nation, we have amassed a massive amount of debt. It may not be as debilitating as what Europe faces, and we may not have as deep a social safety net as EU countries, but it’s still not sustainable. We know that.
We need to address our debt problem now. When comparing our plight to the EU’s, we should take no solace in the fact that they are farther down the road, hurtling toward a cliff. We’re on that very same road, a few miles back, and it’s time to take the first exit to fiscal sanity.
We may not win a Nobel Peace Prize. But we’ll have done the noble and right thing for ourselves, our children, and our grandchildren.