European Union leaders accepted the Nobel Peace Prize with a pledge to master the economic crisis that threatens to set back the six-decade quest for a more united continent.
Almost 14 years after the euro’s arrival and nine years after the EU expanded to the ex-communist east of Europe, the rhetoric reflected the diminished ambitions of a bloc that once claimed to be a model for how the world should operate.
“The test Europe is currently facing is real,” EU President Herman Van Rompuy said at the Nobel ceremony in Oslo today. “We answer with our deeds, confident we will succeed. We are working very hard to overcome the difficulties, to restore growth and jobs.”
Quoting Konrad Adenauer, Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln and EU founding father Jean Monnet, Van Rompuy said the 27-nation bloc needs to recommit to its loftier purposes in the face of recession and 10.7 percent unemployment.
In announcing the prize on Oct. 12, the Norwegian Nobel Committee had just that in mind, calling on Europe’s leaders to advance the integration that started with six countries pooling coal and steel production in the aftermath of World War II.
War and Peace
Van Rompuy related family war memories from Belgium and European Commission President Jose Barroso evoked the democratic revolution in his native Portugal in 1974 as examples of how far Europe has come.
“We are hit by the worst economic crisis in two generations, causing great hardship among our people and putting the political bonds of our union to the test,” Van Rompuy said. “For some, not only joint decisions, but the very fact of deciding jointly, may come into doubt.”
Back in Brussels, a week of trials await for joint decision-making. Finance ministers will tackle divisions over euro-area bank supervision on Dec. 12, followed on Dec. 13 by a meeting on Greece’s bailout and on Dec. 13-14 by a summit on the longer-term overhaul of the euro zone.
The ceremony was attended by national leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Greek Prime Minister Antonis Samaras, two figures on opposite sides of the debt crisis. Merkel sat between French President Francois Hollande and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a symbol both of postwar reconciliation and of Germany’s centrality in European affairs.
Germany in Focus
Germany’s historic responsibilities figured in a tribute by the head of the Norwegian Nobel committee, Thorbjoern Jagland, who recalled the “enormous costs” of stitching the two halves of the country together after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister, spoke of “canceling debts” of struggling countries -- something Merkel as the dominant crisis manager has refused to do, at least until after the next German election in late 2013.
Ironies of Europe’s past and present resonated through the 75-minute ceremony. It was held in the town hall of Oslo, capital of Norway, a country that twice voted against joining the EU. It was noted for the absence of Prime Minister David Cameron of Britain, who may call a referendum leading to a U.K. exit from the bloc.
Besides a chimed rendition of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the EU’s anthem, musical offerings included a part-lament, part up-tempo appeal to north-south European amity by a group called OqueStrada from Portugal, one of four countries tapping emergency European financial aid.
Commission chief Barroso, who drew on Pope John Paul II and Vaclav Havel for inspiration in addition to Monnet, listed development aid, leadership on climate change, opposition to the death penalty and the promotion of human rights and disarmament as European accomplishments.
Barroso made a foray into day-by-day politics, saying “the current situation in Syria is a stain on the world’s conscience and the international community has a moral duty to address it.”
The EU is the 21st organization to win the peace prize, created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901. It beat out 188 people and 42 organizations.