Source: Stefan Steinacker / www.youthphotos.eu
The "Non-violence" sculpture at the UN in New York.

Europeans live a quiet life these days, don't they? Unlike those uncivilised Americans, we cultivate an atmosphere of peace and tranquility and try to solve all problems by talking rather than through violence... Right? It's time to investigate a common belief: that Europe is the continent of peace.

Peace is a notoriously nebulous concept. Is it only about a country's foreign policy? Should the level of domestic violence in a given country be part of a measure of peace? Or the number of policemen? Or the proportion of people who have frequent fits of road-rage? And how do we judge governments who claim they're using their armies so we don't have to - is it fair to call the USA "aggressive" and Denmark "peaceful," or are American soldiers fighting for the Danes' privilege to live a quiet life?

These are all questions which plagued the creators of the Global Peace Index, which was first compiled in 2007 and now includes 141 countries. The Index reflects events since 2000 and is based on 24 indicators, including military expenditure and "relations with neighbouring countries," but also internal factors such as "level of distrust in other citizens" and the percentage of people in jail.

So how does Europe fare on the Global Peace Index? Well, unfortunately, it's certainly not the most peaceful continent. If you really want a quiet life, the continent of Australia is the place for you, although it's actually New Zealand which is truly tranquil: it enjoys excellent relations with its neighbouring islands, it did not support the war in Iraq and its inhabitants are extremely unlikely to be murdered. Together, Australia and New Zealand have an average ranking of 16th on the Global Peace Index.

But before you pack your bags and head for the Barrier Reef - all is not lost. Europe doesn't do too badly on the Index, although when we take a closer look at the statistics we run into some problems of definition. Which countries actually belong to "Europe"? If we follow the example of the experts who compiled the Index, Europe is made up of "Western Europe," which includes Iceland, Austria, Greece and everywhere in between, and "Central and Eastern Europe," which stretches from the Czech Republic to Russia, Turkey and Uzbekistan. (The experts' division of Europe is oddly influenced by the defunct Iron Curtain.)

Even if it isn't as peaceful as New Zealand, Western Europe is still a very harmonious region, with an average ranking of 20th. It's the warlike Brits and hot-tempered Greeks and Cypriots who really let the side down: the most politically contentious areas of Western Europe are still Cyprus and Northern Ireland, and the UK's heavy involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq makes its ranking (49th) even less impressive.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, life in Central and Eastern Europe is a lot less quiet than it is in Western Europe. The region ranks 65th on average, and is thus almost exactly as violent as the continent of America (including North, Central and South America) and less peaceful than North America. However, perhaps the Central and Ea stern Europeans shouldn't all be tarred with the same brush: the peaceful Slovenes and Czechs rank 16th and 17th individually, in stark contrast with Serbia (85th).

And if you find New Zealand boring after a while, Russia's the place to head to for some excitement. What with its piles of weapons and low level of mutual trust amongst citizens, the superpower is ranked 131st - and since the Index came out in May 2008, it would presumably rate even lower after its escapades in Georgia. The compilers of the Index comment rather pointedly that the percentage of people in prison in Russia is "second only to the US."

"But that's not fair," I hear you cry, "Russia isn't in Europe! And neither is Turkey!" Well, at E&M we favour a very inclusive definition of Europe, but if - only for the sake of argument! - we exclude the Caucasus, Turkey and Russia the average ranking for the whole of Europe, is 36th - not bad, but still nowhere near as peaceful as New Zealand.

One "myth" which the results do seem to support is the favourite claim of EU-fans: that the EU is peaceful and promotes peace. One prominent EUropean who lists "peace" as top of the EU's achievements is Hans-Gert Pöttering, who extols EU peacefulness in this very issue of E&M!

"If the EU is judged as a bloc," say the compilers, "it would come in fourth place." This is notably higher than any other "major power" - the USA comes in at a woeful 97th place. The Index does suggest that small democracies - of which the EU has plenty - tend to be free from strife. However, we will probably only be able to analyse the relationship between the EU and peace more fully when the Index has been around for longer. After all, Iceland and Norway have managed to be paragons of peace even though they haven't joined the EU (yet...).

So: it's not quite time for us Europeans to rest on our laurels. Many European countries have some way to go before becoming as harmonious as New Zealand, Japan or Canada. But statistics like these ones also raise questions about our definition of peace. The European countries which rank most highly on the Index spend relatively little on defence: Iceland has no standing army, Norway is currently reducing its armed forces, and Ireland's army is very small. Do these countries profit from a more peaceful world established by more belligerent countries? Or is it wrong and foolish for countries such as Britain to think violence can be a force for "good"?

IN -1116 DAYS