The European Union was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, providing a feel-good moment for the economically distressed bloc at a time when its post-national vision is losing traction at home and abroad.
“The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,” the Oslo-based Norwegian Nobel Committee said today, in awarding the 8 million-krona ($1.2 million) prize.
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 accolade comes as 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.
The prize, along with literature, physics and medicine honors, was created by Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel and first awarded in 1901. The EU, headquartered in Brussels, became the 21st organization to win the peace prize.
While border-free commerce and travel is the rule in the EU, the bloc has had less success in pacifying its neighborhood and projecting its values globally in a way commensurate with its economic strength.
Committed to “soft power” like development aid and trade, the EU had to rely on the U.S. to stop the bloodshed as Yugoslavia imploded in the early 1990s, a tragedy in Europe’s backyard.
Helplessness in the Balkans and the post-Cold War shift in U.S. priorities led European leaders to try to forge a more united foreign policy with an increased focus on peacekeeping.
The central bank created by the EU to set interest rates for the euro doesn’t have its equivalent in foreign policy, which remains an amalgam of national interests. Britain, for example, is still drawn by its “special relationship” with the U.S., while France favors a European defense and Germany shies from military engagements, most recently in Libya. Further east, countries such as Poland are wary of the re-assertive Russia.
The bloc has sent troops, army trainers, police and civilian experts on 28 missions to strife-torn places such as Kosovo, Congo, Somalia and the Rafah border crossing on the Gaza Strip.
The EU ranks as the world’s leading provider of aid for poor nations, with national governments and the central Brussels authorities donating 86 billion euros in 2009, the year of the latest statistics. Critics say the money is spread too thinly, reflecting conflicting national priorities.
As the leading financier of the Palestinian Authority, the EU has struggled to play an honest-broker role in the Middle East, much as the U.S. is hampered by perceived favoritism toward Israel.
The bloc has yet to meet a goal of deploying 60,000 troops on a 60-day timeline for a sustained one-year field effort. Most peacekeeping operations have also been led by countries managing old colonial interests, as when France led a 400-man mission to Chad in 2008.
When Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, the U.S. took a back seat in cease-fire talks, giving the lead role as peace broker to the EU, represented by French then-President Nicolas Sarkozy.
In 2009, the bloc created the posts of permanent president and foreign affairs chief to strengthen its role internationally. The president, former Belgian premier Herman Van Rompuy, has been absorbed by the economic crisis.
The foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton of the U.K., got the job after two higher-profile candidates backed out. She acts as the international intermediary in negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program. In Brussels, much of her time has been taken up with turf battles over the setup and management of a 1,600-strong diplomatic staff.
The Nobel Committee is led by Thorbjoern Jagland, a former Norwegian prime minister who is now secretary general of the Council of Europe. The other prizes are handed out by the Stockholm-based Nobel Foundation.