European Union wins Nobel Peace Prize despite year of anti-austerity protests
Despite a year marred by violent protests against austerity and the looming prospect of an acrimonious break up, the European Union was controversially awarded the Nobel peace prize for fostering stability and unity.
The shock decision by the Norwegianprize jury was greeted with disbelief and derision, but also with some relief by supporters of the European project.
Reminding the world of the EU’s role in preventing conflict on the continent over the last 60 years, the committee’s citation praised the union’s “advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights”.
“The work of the EU represents the ‘fraternity of nations’,” it said, referring to its expansion to 27 members.
However, the citation acknowledged how problems with the euro have ravaged southern European economies and plunged Europe into its worst recession for 80 years.
The decision was widely interpreted as a conscious bid to prop up the single currency – and the bloc itself – in their darkest hour, after the Nobel committee chairman Thorbjorn Jagland warned of a possible return to “extremism and nationalism”.
“We should do everything we can to safeguard it [the EU], not let it disintegrate. If the euro starts falling apart, then I believe that the internal market will also start falling apart. And then obviously we get new nationalism in Europe,” he said after announcing the prize in Oslo.
Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, quickly linked the “wonderful selection” to her country’s efforts to save the 17-nation eurozone.
“I often say that the euro is more than a currency, and we should not forget that these weeks and months we have spent working to strengthen the euro. At the end of the day it is about the original idea of a union of peace and of values,” she told reporters.
The award was welcomed by many European leaders offering respite.
Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, and José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, said it was a “tremendous honour”.
“It is a prize not just for the project and the institutions embodying a common interest, but for the 500 million citizens living in our Union,” they said in a statement.
Mr van Rompuy and Mr Barroso could collect the prize, which is normally given to individuals with long records of struggle against oppression. The Dalai Lama and Nelson Mandela have been among the recipients.
The award of the prestigious prize sparked a mixed response in Greece, where living standards have crashed as the economy has contracted 20 per cent in the last three years, despite bailouts totalling 240 billion euros (£200 billion).
With social tensions still high, more than 7,000 police had to be deployed to protect Mrs Merkel on a visit to Athens this week, when she was derided by some as a reincarnation of the Third Reich.
Rena Dourou, an MP for the Left-wing Syriza opposition, said of the award: “At first, many people thought this was some kind of joke. It is a very big surprise.”
Christos Dimas, an MP for the country’s ruling centre-Right coalition, pleaded for better treatment from Greece’s European paymasters.
“The EU may have established peace in Europe in the last 50 years, but today its main challenge is to maintain solidarity among its members,” he said.
While Athens has often burned, in Catalonia, Italy and Belgium, resentment at diktats laid down by Brussels to enforce fiscal discipline have also driven a backlash in the shape of mounting nationalist feeling.
Even so, the award was perhaps not the committee’s most contentious. Barack Obama received the prize just days into his presidency of the United States, while commanding the world’s largest military in two wars. He later sanctioned a dramatic increase in secret drone attacks on militants in Pakistan and elsewhere.
Euro-sceptics nonetheless reacted with scorn. Martin Callanan, leader of the Euro-sceptic Conservatives and Reformists party in the European parliament, said: “Twenty years ago this prize would have been sycophantic but maybe more justified. Today it is downright out of touch.”
The Foreign Office released a brief, lukewarm statement urging the European Union to “preserve and strengthen” its achievements in future.
Nicolai Wammen, Denmark’s Europe minister, struck a balanced tone: “We can of course laugh at this, and there are many problems in the EU. It is certainly not a perfect union but it is a strong message that a lot has gone right also since the creation of the EU,” he said.
Nigel Farage, the head of the UK Independence Party, added: “This goes to show that the Norwegians really do have a sense of humour.”