LONDON – The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, a choice that celebrates Europe’s post-World War II economic and political integration but comes as the 27-nation body draws fire over its handling of a massive debt crisis. The award honored the struggle in Europe to not only hold the union together in the wake of the debt crisis, but also to deepen integration across a vast swath of the region stretching from the isles of Greece to the Scottish Highlands, from the ports of Portugal to northern Finland.
But the choice – announced to audible gasps from a room of journalists in Oslo – comes as the EU comes under fire for its bureaucratic and plodding handling of the crisis, as well as for foisting onto its heavily indebted members a crushing austerity that has crippled domestic economies and sparked social unrest in Greece and Spain.
It fed into complaints that the Nobel committee increasingly has strayed from the award’s original ideals – including when it honored President Obama in 2009, just months after he took office – and prompted some critics to say the prize is venturing deeper into the realm of political theater.
Twenty years ago, this prize would have been sycophantic, but maybe more justified. Today it is downright out of touch, said Martin Callanan, a Conservative British politician and chairman of the European Conservative and Reformists Party in the European Parliament. 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.
The Nobel committee said it wanted to laud the EU for safeguarding peace and security and forging a common future for a continent saddled with a dark history of conflict, even as the union confronts its toughest test.
The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest, said Thorbjoern Jagland, the Nobel Committee chairman. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU’s most important result, the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights. The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace.
José Manuel Barroso, president of the European Commission, the executive branch of the European Union, said the award shows that even in tense, difficult times, the European Union remains an inspiration for countries and people all over the world.
This is indeed a great honor for the 500 million citizens of Europe, he said.
But if the union has instilled democracy and peace in Europe, it has also sowed fresh resentment in recent years. As borders have been erased around the region and trade has flowed freely, anxiety has grown in some countries over unfettered immigration as well as the economic dominance of the region by the EU’s core nations, Germany and France.
Nationalist parties are on the rise in Finland, France, Greece and Italy. Germany has been criticized for being reluctant to extend its largesse to threatened European countries such as Greece and Spain.
The award also comes amid a widening gulf between the 17 EU nations that share the euro and the 10 nations still outside the common currency, with talk growing of a two-tiered body in which some nations would forge more closely together while others drift apart.
Anti-EU sentiment is on the rise in nations like Britain, which has jealously guarded the British pound. Pressure is building for the Conservative-led government of Prime Minister David Cameron to hold a national referendum on whether to exit the union.
The move to award the prize to a vast and varied organization follows a pattern in recent years of the Nobel committee thinking outside of the box – the International Atomic Energy Agency won in 2005; and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change shared the honor with Al Gore in 2007. The choice also amounted to a controversial pick for the Norway-based Nobel committee, given that voters in that country have twice rejected membership in the EU.