European Union leaders took the award of the Nobel Peace Prize as a call to action to prevent the euro-area financial crisis from halting the trek toward a united continent.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee bestowed the prize in the same week as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Europe’s most powerful politician, encountered rioters and anti-Nazi taunts on a trip to debt-stricken, recession-wracked Greece.
Praise for the EU’s past was coupled with a warning that economic ills and social instability pose a risk to the historic achievement of entrenching peace and democracy on the continent that brought forth two world wars.
“Europeans won’t be consoled by the Nobel Peace Prize in these difficult times,” Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker, the EU’s longest-serving government leader, told RTL radio yesterday. “What they expect, at every moment in European affairs, is that we make the right decisions.”
Born out of the embers of Europe’s 20th-century wars, the bloc has grown from six countries in 1957 to 27, embracing 500 million people with an economy of $15 trillion. It was formed as insurance against another European conflict, a rationale that has receded as the World War II generation dies off.
The Nobel accolade came as the fallout from the debt crisis threatens the EU’s signal achievement, the euro, and the rise of powers such as China, India and Brazil challenges the European model of rules-based cooperation with nation-states handing sovereign rights to a central authority.
With the pick, the judges in Norway -- a country that twice rejected EU membership -- once again courted controversy. Three years after U.S. President Barack Obama garnered the honor for what he hadn’t done yet, the EU was recognized for what it did long ago: anchor human rights and prosperity on the long-fragmented continent.
“We wish to remind Europeans of what has been built and what may be lost if we let this fall apart,” Thorbjoern Jagland, head of the committee, said in an interview in Oslo after announcing the 8 million-krona ($1.2 million) prize yesterday.
The award citation accentuated the past, relating how the reconciliation of Germany and France gave birth to the European project and served as a democratic beacon that, with the embrace of former Soviet satellites in 2004, put an end to the East-West conflict.
The award was “quite remarkable,” U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said at the State Department in Washington, where she was meeting Italian Foreign Minister Giulio Terzi di Sant’Agata. “It happened because of the very hard work and dedication of leaders and citizens across Europe.”
The judges singled out Greece, Spain and Portugal -- three former dictatorships now on the front lines of the debt crisis - - as beneficiaries of the political and economic freedoms that are hardwired into the EU. The Nobel committee alluded to their plight in a statement pointing to “grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest” in the EU today.
French President Francois Hollande, who came to office in May opposing German-dominated budget-cutting remedies for Europe’s crisis-stricken southern rim, responded to the award with an appeal to European goodwill.
The prize “confers an even greater responsibility on Europe: that of preserving its unity, of the capacity to promote growth and jobs, and of solidarity,” Hollande said. How that will translate at the next anti-crisis summit, on Oct. 18-19, is unclear: France and Germany are at odds over issues such as the distribution of aid funds and the design of a banking-supervision system.
Germany’s Merkel reacted by reinforcing her determination to preserve the euro, in language echoing her pro-EU political godfather, Helmut Kohl. As chancellor from 1982 to 1998, Kohl embedded the united Germany in the wider Europe, and regarded European economic unification as a choice of peace over war.
“The euro is more than a currency and we should not forget this during these weeks and months as we work to strengthen the euro,” Merkel said in Berlin, dismissing the profit-and-loss accounting that marks the German public debate over aiding weaker countries. She called the award “both an incentive and obligation, including for me personally.”
Hours after the prize was announced, a set of talking points for strengthening the euro was released by EU President Herman Van Rompuy, holder of a job created by a 2009 EU treaty, the latest in the ever-closer constitutional arrangements that date back to the 1950s.
Van Rompuy floated ideas like a budget for the euro zone with its own borrowing power and the joint sales of short-term bills, testing whether fiscally top-rated countries such as Germany, the Netherlands and Finland would carry additional burdens for struggling regions.
In Finland’s case, the answer wasn’t long in coming. Prime Minister Jyrki Katainen, speaking to reporters after meeting Van Rompuy in Helsinki, said Finland is “very critical toward the euro-bond idea. It doesn’t make any sense to take the market pressure away from the government bond market.”
The peace prize, along with literature, physics and medicine honors, was created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901. The EU became the 21st organization to win, beating out 188 people and 42 other organizations nominated this year. The selection process will remain secret until the archives are opened in 2062.