ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
These are cynical times. This morning, the Norwegian Nobel committee gave the 2012 Peace Prize to the European Union, and all around us eyebrows arched, people jocularly congratulated the Europeans in our midst as peace prize laureates all, and there was a wisecrack that EU got the peace prize because they're out of the running for next week's prize in economics.
Well, on a less cynical note, the peace prize citation reminds the world why there is a European Union. And it's not just to lower tariffs and make it easier to sell things from the Urals to the Atlantic. It was all about war and peace. And joining us now to talk about the EU is Michael Leigh of the German Marshall Fund who worked for more than 30 years in EU institutions. Welcome to the program.
MICHAEL LEIGH: Thank you very much.
SIEGEL: And first, tell us about the origins of the movement for European integration and the idea of preventing war.
LEIGH: There's been a major war approximately every 30 years in Europe's history over the last 200 years. And after the final cataclysm of the Second World War, Europe's leaders were determined that it would never happen again. The EU began as a major peace project aimed at reconciling the parties who had so recently been involved in this dreadful conflagration.
SIEGEL: The first political challenge then was creating a new relationship among Germany and France, Italy and the Benelux countries, and it did so quite successfully.
LEIGH: It did. And the project began in two sectors: coal and steel. And it's no coincidence these were chosen because these were the industries that munitions had been based upon. And the idea was that as Europe got back on its feet after the Second World War, production of these key industries should be placed on a common basis so that they could never again be used to build armaments and to lead to war.
SIEGEL: And since that time, there was a terrible war in the Balkans, but we don't think of Europe as being menaced by the possibility of a vast continental conflict again.
LEIGH: Certainly not. The EU has also strengthened democracy in Europe and, on the whole, democracies don't make war against each other.
SIEGEL: Yes. The second big wave that entered, I guess, featured Spain, Portugal and Greece, all of which had pretty recently been dictatorships and their entry was conditioned on their being democratic. The Nobel committee actually even credited the EU for helping to advance democracy in Turkey - which it has turned down for membership over the years - because the Turks indeed have democratized and increased guarantees of human rights in order to qualify for the European Union.
LEIGH: Yes. Turkey became a candidate in 1999, a candidate for membership, began negotiations in 2005, so I think this definitely contributed to the strengthening of democracy in Turkey. Unfortunately, in recent years, the reform momentum in Turkey itself has slowed down. And, as you know, in European Union, there have been certain doubts and hesitations about the prospect of a country Turkey's size and its geographical location, close to the Middle East, becoming a member.
SIEGEL: Across Northern Europe, certainly, when there are elections, and now we can say this as well of Greece, you expect to see some party polling somewhere in the teens that is against immigration and it's against integration. It's the True Finn Party, you know, the real Danes Party, whatever it's called. Is there a message here in this peace prize?
LEIGH: I think the EU, above anything else, has been a barrier against extreme nationalism in Europe. And while I can't put myself in the place of the members of the committee, it certainly seems to me that it's very timely to remind everyone - euroskeptics, nationalists - why the European Union was created and to underline the importance of maintaining the EU as a barrier against extremism and as a force for peace.
SIEGEL: Well, congratulations on the Nobel Peace Prize.
LEIGH: Thank you so much.
SIEGEL: Michael Leigh, now of the German Marshall Fund, formerly in charge of enlargement of the European Union, is in Washington this week, but is typically based in Brussels. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.