The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded this year’s Peace Prize to the European Union, in a nod to its record of building peace and democracy on a continent long roiled by war – and perhaps as a reminder of the need to stay the course in troubled times.
The choice surprised many speculators, who had widely tipped an East European human rights activist or promoter of inter-religious dialogue. Although a candidate for the award in the past, the EU was regarded as less likely this year because of the widening economic crisis among some states in the 27-member economic and political union.
But Thorbjørn Jagland, Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman, told journalists gathered at the Nobel Institute in Oslo that the union and its forerunners deserved the prize for having “contributed over six decades to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe.” He said the prize was both recognition of the EU’s early role as a peace broker between Germany and France, but also to mark the EU’s recent progress in the reconciliation process in the Balkans.
“We have to remember it was not that many years ago that these people were slaughtering each other on the streets,” said Mr. Jagland. He also cited the importance of Greece, Spain, and Portugal joining the EU in the 1980s with the introduction of democracy as a basis for their membership, and pointed to the fall of the Berlin Wall, which opened the door to EU membership for several Central and Eastern European countries.
“We want to focus on what has been achieved in Europe in terms of peace and reconciliation and we want to remind us all what can happen if this integration stops and if we let extremism and nationalism start growing again in Europe,” he said.
The EU was one of 43 organizations out of the 231 valid nominations for this year’s prize. According to Geir Lundestad, Norwegian Nobel Committee secretary, the union has been a named candidate for the peace prize even under its previous form as the Coal and Steel Community.
Experts in Norway questioned the timing of the prize given the current economic turmoil in the eurozone and the possible political implications for Norway, which has voted against EU membership in 1972 and 1994.
“It will probably be very controversial,” Kristian Berg Harpviken, director at the Peace Research Institute Oslo, told Norwegian broadcaster NRK ahead of the announcement. “Especially in Norway, it will probably be seen as a very political prize and a contribution to the Norwegian EU debate.”
Jagland, a former Norwegian Labor party prime minister, current secretary general of the Council of Europe, and a proponent of Norway joining the EU, dismissed the potential ripple effect at home.
“This is no argument in any direction for what Norway should do,” he says. “I don’t think this will affect public opinion in Norway right now. It is at an all-time low level when it comes over whether Norway should join EU or not.”
And, he added, where a person stands on EU membership should not diminish the role the EU has played since World War II in promoting a stable Europe. “You can be against membership in the EU and at the same time recognize the peace making role it has had in Europe,” he said.
"The award today by the Nobel Committee," he added, "shows that even in these difficult times, the European Union remains an inspiration for countries and people all over the world and that the international community needs a strong European Union."
It is not yet been decided who will accept the award on the EU's behalf.