|Joke or joy?
Oct. 12: Driven to despair, Henry Kissinger once openly asked: “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?”
The Norwegian Nobel Committee is not usually afflicted by such exasperation but it may come close while deciding whom to call to confer the peace prize after announcing the European Union as this year’s winner.
The declaration today was greeted with derision and delight — depending on which side of Europe was responding — because the Nobel Peace Prize was announced at a time the very future of the 27-nation bloc has been thrown into uncertainty.
The Nobel Committee lauded the EU’s role over six decades in building peace and reconciliation among enemies. The award served as a reminder that the EU had largely brought peace to a continent that had torn itself apart in two world wars in which tens of millions died.
The Nobel Committee did take note of the current crisis. “The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest,” Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said, announcing the award in Oslo. “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.”
But the award also seemed to illuminate competing visions of Europe as both historical unifier and meddlesome overlord, recalling deep strains within the bloc, primarily between Germany and other European nations over Berlin’s insistence on austerity to resolve the euro crisis, which has brought pain to Greece and Spain in particular.
European officials raised the question of who would accept the peace prize on behalf of the bloc’s often bickering members, divided by tensions between its more affluent north and its struggling south. They are also frequently at odds over personality differences and critical questions.
At its headquarters in Brussels, several figureheads compete for prominence, including Josť Manuel Barroso, the president of the European Commission, which enforces European treaties, and Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, which represents heads of European Union governments.
Additionally, the president of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, said in a statement that his institution expected to be part of the award ceremony.
Some Europeans questioned whether the bloc’s track record in the Balkan wars of the 1990s and in the current economic crisis justified a prize for spreading peace.
“The Nobel Committee is a little late for an April Fool’s joke,” said Martin Callanan, a British member of 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.”
Referring to the rolling protests against the austerity measures, Callanan added with lethal skill: “Presumably, this prize is for the peace and harmony on the streets of Athens and Madrid.”
“Is this a joke?” asked Chrisoula Panagiotidi, 36, a beautician who lost her job three days ago in Athens. “It’s the last thing I would expect. It mocks us and what we are going through right now. All it will do is infuriate people here.”
But Jagland, the former Norwegian Prime Minister, said there had been deep concern about Europe’s destiny as it faces the debt-driven woes.
“There is a great danger,” he said in an interview in Oslo. “We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating. Therefore, we should focus again on the fundamental aims of the organisation.”
In announcing the award, Jagland described it as a signal focusing on the union’s historical role in binding France and Germany together after World War II and its perceived impact in spreading reconciliation and democracy beyond the Iron Curtain that once divided Europe and on to the Balkans.
Norway is not a member of the European Union, and Jagland said some people in his country were not aware of the historical role it had played.
“The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,” Jagland said.
He added: “The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a 70-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today, war between Germany and France is unthinkable.”
At a news conference, Jagland said the committee had “no ambitions” that the $1.2-million prize would solve the multibillion-euro crisis, and suggested that the origin of Europe’s current economic uncertainty was the US.
“There are many things to say about the economic crisis — where it originated, for instance,” he said. “It started in the United States, and we had to deal with it. It started with Lehman Brothers.”
German Chancellor Angela Merkel described the award as a “wonderful decision” and said it would inspire her personally to press ahead with closer integration.
Merkel, leader of the EU’s biggest economy, has led the drive to defuse the debt and financial crisis threatening the survival of the euro currency.
But her insistence on tough fiscal measures to cut debt in the midst of a wrenching recession in southern Europe has drawn strong criticism from some countries in the 27-nation EU.
British Prime Minister David Cameron made no comment on the prize, a stark contrast to the effusion of other EU leaders and a reflection of Britain’s uneasy relationship with Europe.