LONDON -– The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday in recognition of its contribution to promoting peace and harmony on a continent that gave rise to two devastating world wars in the past century.
The prestigious award offers a morale boost for the 27-nation EU at a time of major economic crisis, which has seen the organization's goal of integration and unity fray badly, especially its most ambitious project, the euro single currency.
Parties skeptical of the EU have risen in the polls across Europe as national economies sink into recession, partly as a result of the austerity cuts imposed as a solution to the euro debt crisis. Street protests are now almost a daily occurrence in countries such as Greece and Spain, where the pains of economic contraction have hit hard. Secessionist groups have gained momentum in nations from
Belgium to Italy.
The Nobel committee acknowledged those problems, but said it looked at the EU's signal achievement over time.
"The European Union is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest. 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," said Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the committee. "The stabilizing part played by the European Union has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace."
Jagland noted that France and Germany alone had fought three wars between them in a 70-year period, ending with World War II. The two countries are now the main drivers of the EU and of the euro; their leaders are in constant contact and often coordinate policy.
"Reconciliation has become a reality," Jagland said. "Today war between Germany and France is unthinkable."
The EU was born out of the ashes of World War II, first as an economic entity known as the European Coal and Steel Community, comprising only a handful of nations in Western Europe. It now has 27 members, including many former Soviet satellites, and allows for free movement of goods and people across borders.
The announcement met with both praise and some raised eyebrows.
"Violent oppression of protesters and austerity measures count as peace now?" one Twitter user asked.
But Jagland said that even many of the protesters on the streets of Athens, Madrid and Lisbon still sympathized with the goal of European unity, calling them people who "do not want to lose what has been achieved."
EU President Herman Van Rompuy, on a visit to Finland, told reporters: "We are all very proud that the efforts of the EU for keeping the peace in Europe are rewarded."
Ironically, the prize was announced in Oslo, the capital of Norway, a nation that has steadfastly refused to join the EU.
-- Henry Chu
Photo: Flags of European countries are displayed in front of a flag of the European Union in Lille, France. Credit: Philippe Huguen / AFP/Getty Images