THE European Union was yesterday awarded the Nobel peace prize in honour of six decades of “harmony” between members, in a move that shocked many commentators.
• The European Union has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize 2012
• The Norwegian prize committee praised the EU’s commitment to democracy that has stabilised the continent
• The commitee said they wished to focus on the merits of the EU at a time of economic and social unrest
The award confirms the need for a stronger bond between member states, the head of the European Commission said last night.
Jose Manuel Barroso said the honour – in recognition of work “to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe” – could not have come at a better time.
However, the decision attracted scathing criticism from opponents of the union, who said the award was “out of touch”.
The Norwegian committee that awards the prize focused on the EU’s historical role in the aftermath of the Second World War, but many observers were astonished by the decision, given the deep divisions that have emerged in response to the economic crisis of recent years.
Mr Barroso said: “At a moment where the rating of Europe is not always good, this is the kind of rating that we very much appreciate because it is made by an independent institution, the Nobel peace prize.”
However, eurosceptics said the timing could not have been worse. The leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs, Martin Callanan, said: “Twenty years ago, this prize would have been sycophantic but maybe more justified. Today, it is downright out of touch.
“Presumably, this prize is for the peace and harmony on the streets of Athens and Madrid. The EU’s policies have exacerbated the fallout of the financial crisis and led to social unrest that we haven’t seen for a generation.”
Even the EU’s biggest supporters acknowledged the irony of the award being granted in the midst of one of the EU’s worst crises and at a time of deep rifts between major member states.
Mr Barroso hastily convened a press conference and started by saying: “When I woke up this morning, I did not expect it to be such a good day.”
He added: “This [prize] is indeed a recognition from the international community that we need a stronger European Union, and a recognition of the contribution the EU has been giving, not only to peace and conciliation in our continent, but also to the inspiration for many around the world that are fighting for these values of freedom and democracy.
“I hope that we can also draw the lessons of this because in many quarters of Europe I know there is this pessimism or negativism, and we need also sometimes good news.”
Ukip leader Nigel Farage said the EU, far from bringing peace and harmony, was causing “violence and division” in nations like Spain and Greece.
Mr Farage, whose party campaigns for the UK to leave the EU, said: “You only have to open your eyes to see the increasing violence and division within the EU which is caused by the euro project.”
Cynics said the award was less about celebrating the legacy of peace and more about delivering positive public relations when the EU needs it most.
Many said it would be better timed to coincide with the marking in 2014 of the centenary of the beginning of First World War.
However, the German president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz – once jokingly likened to a Nazi camp commandant by former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi – welcomed the acknowledgement of the EU’s role in peace.
“It is a great honour that the EU has won this year’s Nobel peace prize. This prize is for all EU citizens. We in the European Parliament are deeply touched,” he said.
“The EU has reunified the continent through peaceful means and brought arch-enemies together. This historic act of reunification has been rightfully recognised.”
In London, seen by many in Brussels as the engine-room of euroscepticism, the Foreign Office said: “This award recognises the EU’s historic role in promoting peace and reconciliation in Europe, particularly through its enlargement to central and eastern Europe. The EU must always strive to preserve and strengthen those achievements.”
Former prime minister Tony Blair, who once vowed to put the UK at the heart of the EU, commented: “The European Union is one of the defining concepts of the last half century. Amidst the turmoil of today, we would do well to remember that when the Second World War ended, Europe was in ruins. What followed has been over
50 years of peace and progress. The rationale for Europe today has changed but the ideal of a Europe united and working together remains constant.”
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said the EU had achieved an “extraordinary feat” in the aftermath of the Second World War.
Peace prize winners receive eight million kroner – £700,000. A 20 per cent cut in prize money was announced this year due to the global economic crisis.
The money was donated by the chemist Alfred Nobel in his will. Winners are free to spend it in any way they choose, although institutions such as the EU are subject to internal discussions on how it will be used.