Nobel Peace Prize a victory for EU unity

Former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl said he was "delighted by the decision "to award the European Union the Nobel Peace prize. But as some member states of the bloc struggle to cope with mounting economic woes, his enthusiasm was far from universal.

BERLIN // The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday for bringing enduring peace to a continent ravaged by wars for centuries, in a surprise decision aimed at allaying growing doubts about the future of the bloc in the debt crisis.

Although the EU faces economic woes and social unrest, the Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said in Oslo that the bloc was being recognised for its "successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights".

The EU, he said, had transformed most of Europe "from a continent of wars to a continent of peace".

The prize, worth US$1.2 million (Dh4.4m), will be presented on December 10. The decision by the five-member panel, led by Mr Jagland who is also secretary general of the Council of Europe, was unanimous. True to EU form, a debate has erupted over who should travel to Oslo to receive it.

Many European leaders past and present hailed the award as a powerful spur to overcome the debt woes that have plagued the continent for almost three years and have opened deep rifts between struggling southern EU members states such as Spain, Italy, Portugal and Greece, and more prosperous members in the north, especially Germany. "I am delighted at this decision," said former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl.

But not everyone shared Mr Kohl's enthusiasm.

Ed Balls, a senior member of Britain's Labour Party, remarked sarcastically: "They'll be cheering in Athens tonight, won't they?"

Chrisoula Panagiotidi, 36, an Athens beautician, reacted incredulously to the news. "Is this a joke?"

"It mocks us and what we are going through right now. All it will do is infuriate people here," Ms Panagiotidi, who lost her job three days ago, told Reuters. Unemployment in Greece now stands at 25 per cent. The country's GDP has shrunk by a fifth since 2008.

Nigel Farage, leader of Britain's fiercely eurosceptic UKIP party, said: "This goes to show that the Norwegians really do have a sense of humour."

Such responses show the extent to which European integration has been overshadowed by policy disagreements, nationalism, mutual distrust and economic hardship. The EU is in a quandary: countries need to move closer together to resolve flaws in the design of the euro - but the rifts caused by the crisis are preventing them from doing so.

The debt problems have brought out national resentments that are never far from the surface even 67 years after the end of the war.

Commentators in Britain have accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of trying to establish a "Fourth Reich" in Europe by dictating the terms of bailouts for struggling EU members, and demonstrators in Athens greeted her with swastika flags when she visited the Greek capital on Tuesday.

"Germany Doesn't Deserve That!" Bild, Germany's biggest selling tabloid newspaper, screamed in a banner front page headline the day after.

Mrs Merkel said the prize "is both a spur and an obligation, also for me in a very personal way. Six decades of peace in Europe, that is a long time for those of us who live in the EU, but from a historical point of view it is just the blink of an eye. We must work tirelessly and continue to strive for peace, democracy and freedom."

But for Mr Kohl, who was one of the architects of the EU and the euro single currency, the prize "is also encouragement for all of us to continue on the path to a united Europe".

Mr Kohl, unlike the current generation of European leaders, has personal experience of the war. He was 12 when he was drafted into a unit in 1944 to remove rubble and dead bodies after Allied bombing raids on his hometown of Ludwigshafen.

The Nobel Committee's statement echoed his mantra that above all, the purpose of the EU and of the euro were to keep peace in Europe, where decisions that used to be settled on battlefields are now resolved by wrangling in the negotiating rooms of Brussels.

The EU has its origin in the 1957 Treaty of Rome. The six-state common market it founded expanded into a 27-nation European Union ranging from the Atlantic to the borders of Russia. Its population totals 500 million and it has the world's largest economy, ahead of the US.

French president Francois Hollande called the award an "immense honour" that committed EU leaders to pursue a "more united, fairer, stronger Europe".

The European Union's top official, Council President Herman Van Rompuy, said: "The European Union is the biggest peacemaker in history."

However, the comment clashed with the EU's failure to secure peace in former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, when the US had to broker a settlement, and with Europe's inability to this day to come up with a unified foreign policy.

Irish citizen Howard Spilane, 48, believes the award is "a good thing". He told Reuters: "Europe's in a crisis, but compared to the wars - even compared to the Cold War - Europe is in a better place. People are suffering, but they are not dying. On balance they have achieved a lot."

 

foreign.desk@thenational.ae

Published: October 13, 2012 04:00 AM

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