Friday, the Nobel Prize Committee in Oslo, Norway announced that the European Union – yep, all of it – has won 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. In giving the award, the committee cited the EU’s role in helping, after years of war on the continent, to ensure six decades of peace among its members. But given the currently dire state of the European Union’s economic affairs, some, including myself, were left wondering about the timing of the award.
You see, after two years of covering Europe’s financial meltdown – in Brussels, Greece, Germany and elsewhere – I immediately went for the easy joke when I heard the Nobel announcement this morning.
“Well,” I thought, “the EU certainly wasn’t in the running for the Nobel Prize for Economics…”
Luckily, a highly-regarded European statesman was on hand to wipe the smirk off my face this morning.
“It’s not the prize in economics. It’s the prize for peace,” Carl Bildt, Sweden’s foreign minister, told the BBC. “The European Union is the strongest, the most significant instrument for peace and prosperity in our part of the world in our time. And it is highly, highly relevant to give it the prize.”
That sentiment wasn’t just echoed, but amplified, by many of the EU’s leading politicians Friday.
Portugal’s Jose Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, said of the prize in that typical high-minded style so popular in Brussels: “It is justified recognition of a unique project that works for the benefit of its citizens and also for the benefit of the world.”
US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton sent her congratulations, praising the work of Europe’s leaders. And those European heads of state also weighed in themselves.
“Six decades of peace in Europe is a long time for those of us who live in the EU,” said German Chancellor Angela Merkel. “Yet in history, it’s a blink of the eye.
“And that” she said, “is why we must never forget that in order to keep this peace we have to work hard over and over.”
Of course, Merkel is having to work pretty hard these days to convince her own people that the EU is worth the financial pain. And last week, on a visit to troubled Greece, she was greeted by protests…and worse.
“You only have to look at what happened last week when Angela Merkel turned up in Athens to be greeted with Molotov cocktails, violence and people dressed up in Nazi uniforms,” said Nigel Farage, the leaders of the UK Independence Party. An unapologetic euro-skeptic, Farage pounced on Friday’s Peace Prize announcement.
“This attempt to merge all these different countries in Europe, far from giving us peace and harmony, is beginning to divide Europe north to south, and to make people strongly dislike each other,” he told the BBC. “Frankly, to be given this award at this moment in time will be greeted with derision.”
And it wasn’t just small parties in euro-ambivalent Britain that seemed puzzled by Friday’s announcement. Prime Minister David Cameron side-stepped all talk of the prize, and kept silent.
Others in Europe wondered: Why not give the prize to someone fighting for human rights in Russia? Or how about opting for a figure from the Arab Spring?
Kristian Harpkiven, director of the Oslo-based Peace Research Institute (which has nothing to do with the Nobel organization), says this year’s award is different.
Recently, the prize committee has made a point of saying it wants to look to the future, he told me, “whereas today it actually reverted to a fundamentally historical justification for awarding the prize.” He meant that the award has been made for past accomplishments…not future hopes.
And then, Harpkiven says, you can’t overlook the domestic politics at play here.
“It’s certainly a controversial prize, in the Norwegian context, a domestic context, because the whole issue of Norway’s membership of the EU has been so controversial. And Norway, as some will know, is not a member of the EU, and turned down the opportunity back in 1994 in a popular vote.”
It all put me in mind of what a journalist friend of mine in Brussels likes to say. Namely, that Europe is still just a bunch of tribes who fundamentally don’t trust each other.
Which is why, he quickly added, the EU is so important.
For my part, I’m already looking ahead to the award ceremony and wondering exactly who is going to collect the prize? Portugal’s Barroso? Belgian Herman van Rompuy, the president of the European Council? Or why not let German, Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, collect it?
And then there’s the $1.2 million worth of prize money. On Twitter Friday, someone suggested simply handing it over to Greece…not that it would make much difference.
An Irish friend noted that if split evenly, the prize would equal about 15 percent of one eurocent for each EU citizen. Yeah, she quipped, I’ll just wait for that to be deposited directly into my state bailed-out bank account.