The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize for its long-term role in uniting the continent, the Norwegian Nobel Committee said on Friday. The award was seen as morale boost for the bloc as it struggles to resolve its debt crisis.
The committee praised the 27-nation EU for rebuilding after the Second World War and for its role in spreading stability to former communist countries after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.
The prize, worth $1.2 million, will be presented in Oslo on Dec. 10.
Today’s EU began in Paris, in 1951, when Jean Monnet, the French civil servant widely regarded as the architect of European unity, set up the European Coal and Steel Community, a club of six nations: France, West Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, Italy and the Netherlands.
The idea was to deprive any individual country of control over materials intrinsic to any conflict.
After two world wars born in Europe scarred the first half of the 20th century, France and Germany were reconciled in an “ever closer union” that replaced trench warfare with late-night haggling over farm prices and fish quotas.
Some analysts see the European Union as the most successful example of peaceful regime change, with people living better lives than they did 50 years ago.
In the half century since six countries signed the Treaty of Rome establishing the European Economic Community, the bloc’s members, now numbering 27, have enjoyed near total peace, rising prosperity and growing stability unmatched in their history.
After the collapse of communism symbolised by the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, a region divided by the Cold War was knitted together as a community of democracies, thanks largely to the EU’s political standards and economic norms.
The common market founded on March 25, 1957 by West Germany, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg grew to embrace first Britain, Ireland and Denmark in 1973, then the former dictatorships of Greece, Spain and Portugal in the 1980s.
Next, came formerly neutral Sweden, Finland and Austria, released from Cold War political limbo, in 1995, and then a “big-bang” eastward expansion to embrace eight former Soviet bloc countries, plus Cyprus and Malta, in 2004 and 2007.
The European Union has had successes as well as failures, grouping as it does with different national policies which have not always seen a clear path towards a consensus.
The Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) was one of the most controversial of the EU’s activities. It was designed to ensure steady prices for farmers. Its critics said it encouraged over-production, high prices to the producer and expensive food for the customer.
The CAP was said to have overlooked the needs of poor farmers. This caused them to carry out increasingly violent protests in Europe, demanding higher prices for their produce.
The EU said a higher increase in farm product prices could exhaust its funds. But the farmers insisted that the rise was justified. They said France, with above-average inflation, was the hardest hit by the EU policy of fixing common prices.
This led Irish rock star and campaigner Bob Geldof, who would later start the Live Aid project, to criticise the EU for creating a system that ultimately led to mountains of food perishing across the bloc.
“More important is this disgusting and persistent anomaly of the grain mountains, the wheat mountains, the butter mountains, the wine lakes. Now it sounds almost corny to go on about that in front of you people, but it is a result of one of the crowning idiocies of the EC and that is the common agricultural policy,” Geldof told European members of parliament in 1985.
Another common policy was the EU’s currency plan when it launched the euro in 2002 — a single currency for all EU countries designed to strengthen economic and political cooperation. The single currency has come under pressure in recent years, with the financial crisis seeing several EU countries struggling to make ends meet.
Many see the EU as a paradoxical and complex superstate of leaders who blindly sign treaty after treaty without consulting with their people. It also sometimes perceived as a bloc that runs the risk of being increasingly disunited and incapable of agreeing on EU-wide policies and reforms which would carry it forward.
Danes voted against the Maastricht Treaty on economic and monetary union in 1992 but backed it a year later. The Irish rejected the 2000 Treaty of Nice, meant to adapt EU institutions for enlargement, but also changed their minds in a second vote.
Danes and Swedes both voted against joining the euro zone. And French and Dutch voters triggered a crisis of confidence in 2005 when they rejected a proposed constitution meant to give the EU stronger leadership and a fairer decision-making system.