THE DECISION CAME AS A SURPRISE. When the Nobel Committee awarded its annual Peace Prize in 2012, the betting markets had predicted a laureate involved with the Arab Spring. Almost no one expected the prize to go to a fusty institution that had transformed a continent of war to one of peace—the European Union. “War is as old as Europe,” explained Herman Van Rompuy, the first European Council president, accepting the award in Oslo in December that year. “Our continent bears the scars of spears and swords, cannons and guns, trenches and tanks, and more.”

Today, Europe calls to mind bureaucracy. Instead of gunfire and the rattle of tank tracks, the soundtrack to the E.U. is the quiet rustling of papers in the hallways of its capital, Brussels. After the traumas of genocide and upheaval, Europe now embraces compromise. “For this,” Van Rompuy said, “boring politics is only a small price to pay.”

But they’re not so boring lately. One of the world’s most extraordinary experiments in governance—a union throwing together what is now 28 countries with wildly different cultures, to fight around a negotiating table rather than on the battlefield—is under siege from within.

In the decades after the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957, which created the E.U.’s predecessor, glorious blandness came to define Europe. Over time, countries surrendered segments of their governance to a faceless entity that diffuses authority across a handful of confoundingly named institutions: the European Council, the Council of the European Union, the European Parliament and the European Commission.

In his Nobel Peace Prize speech, Van Rompuy referred to the E.U.’s secret weapon as “binding our interests so tightly that war becomes materially impossible.” Those interests range from the common euro currency in 19 countries to frictionless trade and the free movement of people to live and work across the 28 member states. And in the Parliament in Brussels, 751 representatives forge common policies that affect more than 500 million people, on everything from trade and agriculture to technology and the environment. In Brussels, lawmakers make countless decisions about the cars Europeans drive, the food they eat and the pets they own.

It’s an opaque system that most Europeans either struggle to understand or display little interest in trying. Until now there’s been only tepid attention paid to elections for the European Parliament, which take place every five years; in 2014, fewer than 43% of voters

You're reading a preview, sign up to read more.

More from TIME

TIME2 min read
Harper Lee’s True-crime Days
ONE OF THE GREAT MYSTERIES IN American literary history is what happened to Nelle Harper Lee after July 11, 1960, when To Kill a Mockingbird was published. While her novel sold millions of copies, Atticus became a household name and Gregory Peck coll
TIME1 min read
New Realities, Same Issues
The nine stories in Ted Chiang’s Exhalation probe the intersections among technology, science and philosophy. They ask big what-if questions, from the implications of time travel on free will to the impact of kids being raised by machines. In the lo
TIME5 min readPolitics
Congresswoman Elise Stefanik Has A Plan To Get More Republican Women Elected
REPRESENTATIVE ELISE STEFANIK CAN PINPOINT the moment that crystallized the issue for her: It was the week after the midterm elections, and the newly elected members of the House of Representatives lined up for a photo. Representing the Democratic si