The EU won the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday for promoting peace, democracy and human rights over six decades in an award seen as a morale boost as the bloc struggles to resolve its economic crisis.
The award served as a reminder that the EU had largely brought peace to a continent which tore itself apart in two world wars in which tens of millions died.
The EU has transformed most of Europe “from a continent of wars to a continent of peace,” Nobel Committee chairman Thor-bjoern Jagland said in announcing the award in Oslo.
“The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest. 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,” he said.
Jaglund praised the EU for rebuilding Europe after World War II and for its role in spreading stability after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
The debt crisis afflicting the single-currency zone has brought economic instability to several member states, while rioting has erupted on the streets of Athens and Madrid as austerity measures have bitten hard.
The US$1.2 million prize is to be presented in Oslo on Dec. 10. The decision by the five-member panel, led by Jagland who is also secretary-general of the Council of Europe, was unanimous.
The EU won from a field of 231 candidates, including Russian dissidents and religious leaders working for Muslim-Christian reconciliation.
Conceived in secret at a chateau near Brussels, what is now the EU was created by the 1957 Treaty of Rome, signed with great fanfare in the Italian capital’s 15th century Palazzo dei Conservatori.
The six-state “common market” it founded grew into a 27-nation EU ranging from Ireland’s Atlantic shores to the borders of Russia.
However, the EU is now mired in crisis with strains on the euro, the common currency shared by 17 nations.
Politicians in Germany, one of the main forces behind the foundation of the EU, were delighted with the award.
Helmut Kohl, the chancellor who reunified Germany and pushed the country into the euro, said: “The Nobel Peace Prize for the EU is above all a confirmation of the European peace project.”
The British government, less committed to the European ideal than other EU members, made no comment. Ed Balls, a senior member of the opposition Labour Party, remarked: “They’ll be cheering in Athens tonight, won’t they.”
Nigel Farage, leader of Britain’s fiercely eurosceptic UKIP party, added: “This goes to show that the Norwegians really do have a sense of humor.”
In Athens, Greeks weary of years of austerity and crisis agreed.
“Is this a joke?” asked Chrisoula Panagiotidi, 36, a beautician who lost her job three days ago.
“It’s the last thing I would expect. It mocks us and what we are going through right now. All it will do is infuriate people here,” she added.
In Madrid, Francisco Gonzalez expressed bafflement.
“I don’t see the logic in the EU getting this prize right now. They can’t even agree among themselves,” the 62-year-old businessman said.
Many Norwegians are bitterly opposed to the EU, seeing it as a threat to the sovereignty of nation states.
“I find this absurd,” the leader of Norway’s anti-EU membership organization Heming Olaussen said. “In Latin America and other parts of the world they will view this quite differently than they will from Brussels. The union is a trade bloc that contributes to keeping many countries in poverty.”