OSLO (AFP) - The European Union, facing its worst crisis in six decades, was officially awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize on Monday for turning Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace.”
With a score of EU heads of state and government looking on, Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland handed the prize to a threesome of EU leaders - EU president Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and European parliament president Martin Schulz. Recalling the 80 million European victims of war and extremism last century, Jagland said “peace must not be taken for granted. We have to struggle for it everyday.”
“Together we must ensure that we do not lose what we have built.” His Nobel Committee has come under criticism however for awarding the prestigious 2012 award to the EU at a time when it is riven by divisions and violent anti-austerity protests. “We are not gathered here today in the belief that the EU is perfect,” Jagland said. “Europe needs to move forward. Safeguard what has been gained. And improve what has been created, enabling us to solve the problems threatening the European community today,” Jagland said. “This is the only way to solve the problems created by the financial crisis, to everyone’s benefit.”
Based on the will of old enemies France and Germany to reconcile after three bloody wars, the EU has grown from six states to 28 next July, when Croatia becomes the latest of Balkans nations embroiled in conflict only 20 years ago to join the bloc.
Leaders of France and Germany, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel, rose to take a long round of applause from the dozens of dignitaries assembled in Oslo City Hall as the Nobel medal, diploma and almost million-euro prize were handed to the organisation’s top officials.
But half a dozen EU leaders, including Britain’s premier David Cameron, snubbed the event, taking place just four days before a key EU summit to determine the pace and next steps in attempts to forge a tighter union.
The EU is bristling with talk of a possible walk-out by Britain - or “Brixit”- and the head of Britain’s once-marginal but increasingly popular eurosceptic UKIP party, Nigel Farage, said Sunday “far from bringing peace, the EU is engendering violence, poverty and despair across Europe.”
Rich nations of northern Europe and the struggling economies of the south are increasingly divided as austerity reforms trigger fiery protests and feed extremist movements such as the one in Greece.
Tensions too remain between the 17 nations that share the euro and those that remain outside, while even relations between France and Germany are rocky. Differences between the two powers are notably holding up a deal to set up a banking union seen as a key to the future of the eurozone. Van Rompuy and Barroso had hoped to seal off an agreement at this week’s summit.
“Europe is going through a difficult period,” Van Rompuy said on the eve of the awards ceremony. “We will come out of this time of uncertainty and recession stronger than we were before.”
Efforts last month to agree a new multi-year budget collapsed in an ugly showdown between have- and have-not nations of north, south and east, and the bloc too split over its stand on the Palestinian bid for a status upgrade at the UN.
Unprecedented job cuts are threatening stability as unemployment surges to one in four workers in Greece and to a massive one in two under-25s in Spain, whipping up talk of a “lost generation” of European youth.
Jagland said in his prize-giving speech that because of the financial crisis the union was “more important now than ever.”
“We must stand together. We have collective responsibility,” he said.