The European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize today, providing a feel-good moment for the economically distressed bloc at a time when its post-national vision is losing traction at home and abroad.
The accolade comes as the financial crisis threatens the EU’s signal achievement, the euro, and the rise of powers such as China, India and Brazil challenges the European model of rules-based cooperation with nation-states handing sovereign rights to a central authority.
“This is in a way a message to Europe that we should do everything we can to secure what has been achieved and move forward,” Thorbjoern Jagland, head of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, told reporters in Oslo after awarding the $1.2 million prize. “We have to keep in mind what has been achieved on this continent and not let the continent go into disintegration again. We know what it means: the emergence of extremism and nationalism once again.”
Born out of the embers of Europe’s 20th-century wars, the bloc has grown from six countries in 1957 to 27, embracing 500 million people with an economy of $15 trillion. It was formed as insurance against another European conflict, a rationale that has receded as the World War II generation dies off.
The prize, along with literature, physics and medicine honors, was created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901. The EU, headquartered in Brussels, became the 21st organization to win the peace prize. It beat out 188 people and 42 organizations nominated for this year’s prize, in a selection process that will remain secret until the archives are opened in 2062.
With the pick, the Norwegian judges once again courted controversy. Three years after U.S. President Barack Obama garnered the honor for what he hadn’t done yet, the EU was recognized for what it did long ago: anchor peace and prosperity on a continent that brought forth two world wars.
The award citation accentuated the past, relating how the reconciliation of Germany and France gave birth to the European project and served as a democratic beacon that, with the embrace of former Soviet satellites in 2004, put an end to the East-West conflict.
The judges singled out Greece, Spain and Portugal – three countries now on the front lines of the debt crisis – as beneficiaries of the political and economic freedoms that are hardwired into the EU. The prize committee alluded to their plight in a statement pointing to “grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest” in the EU today.
Jose Barroso, president the European Commission, the EU’s executive agency, took that as a call to action. At a briefing in Brussels, Barroso said the Nobel committee sent “a very important message to Europe: that the European Union is something very precious, that we should cherish it.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, often criticized for imposing austerity on southern Europe, said the euro crisis management goes beyond profit-and-loss accounting. Speaking to reporters in Berlin, she said: “The euro is more than a currency and we should not forget this during these weeks and months as we work to strengthen the euro.”
While border-free commerce and travel is the rule in the EU, the bloc has had less success in pacifying its neighborhood and projecting its values globally in a way commensurate with its economic strength.
Committed to “soft power” like development aid and trade, the EU had to rely on the U.S. to stop the bloodshed when Yugoslavia imploded in the early 1990s, a tragedy in Europe’s backyard. Helplessness in the Balkans and the post-Cold War shift in U.S. priorities led European leaders to try to forge a more united foreign policy with an increased focus on peacekeeping.
The Nobel judges said the EU learned lessons from the implosion of Yugoslavia, embracing Slovenia as its first ex-Yugoslav member in 2004 and planning to add Croatia in 2013. The prospect of membership has also underpinned democratic reforms across the western Balkans and in Turkey, said Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who is now secretary general of the Council of Europe.
The central bank created by the EU to set interest rates for the euro doesn’t have its equivalent in foreign policy, which remains an amalgam of national interests. Britain, for example, is still drawn by its “special relationship” with the U.S., while France favors a European defense and Germany shies from military engagements, most recently in Libya. Further east, countries such as Poland are wary of the re-assertive Russia.
The bloc has sent troops, army trainers, police and civilian experts on 28 missions to strife-torn places such as Kosovo, Congo, Somalia and the Rafah border crossing on the Gaza Strip.
The EU ranks as the world’s leading provider of aid for poor nations, with national governments and the central Brussels authorities donating $112 billion in 2009, the year of the latest statistics. Critics say the money is spread too thinly, reflecting conflicting national priorities.