, OSLO, Dec 10 – The European Union steps up on Monday to collect this year’s prestigious Nobel Peace Prize, with the bloc battered and divided by a three-year economic crisis threatening the continent’s social stability.
“The last 60 years have shown that Europe can unite in peace,” Nobel committee Thorbjoern Jagland said Sunday. “This is the right moment to deliver a clear message to Europe to preserve what we have achieved.”
The Nobel medal, diploma and almost million-euro prize will be handed to the organisation’s top officials — EU president Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and European parliament chief Martin Schulz — at a lavish ceremony in icy, snowy Oslo that kicks off at 1200 GMT.
The much-criticised 2012 reward is for turning Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace,” the Nobel committee said.
Based on the will of old enemies France and Germany to reconcile after three bloody wars, the EU has grown from six states to 28 next July, when Croatia becomes the latest of Balkans nations embroiled in conflict only 20 years ago to join the bloc.
But the Nobel award also puts the spotlight on the union’s current divisions and challenges ahead.
Half a dozen EU leaders, including Britain’s premier David Cameron, are snubbing the event, taking place just four days before a key EU summit to determine the pace and the next steps in attempts to forge a tighter union.
“The Nobel committee picked their time carefully, when the EU was in crisis and nationalism on the rise,” Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think-tank, told AFP.
“This is a reminder to us. The EU is a key guarantor of peace but we hold this in disregard, we tend to forget.”
The EU is bristling with current talk of a possible walk-out by Britain — or “Brixit” — and the head of Britain’s once-marginal but increasingly popular eurosceptic UKIP party, Nigel Farage, said Sunday that “far from bringing peace, the EU is engendering violence, poverty and despair across Europe.”
Meanwhile tensions between the 17 nations that share the euro and those that remain outside the single currency are heightening amid crisis-linked demands to tighten economic and monetary union.
The leaders of the “big two” powers France and Germany, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel, will attend the ceremony in Oslo.
But relations between these two are rocky, notably holding up a deal to set up a banking union seen as a key to the future of the eurozone, standing at a crossroads between more union and federalism — or more uncertainty.
Rich nations of northern Europe and the struggling economies of the south are showing increasing divisions too as austerity reforms trigger fiery protests and feed extremist movements such as the one in Greece.
“Europe is going through a difficult period,” EU president Herman Van Rompuy said on the eve of the awards ceremony. “We are working hard … We will come out of this time of uncertainty and recession stronger than we were before.”
The boon of winning the prestigious Nobel appears however to have failed to soothe divisions within the bloc.
Efforts last month to agree a new multi-year budget collapsed in an ugly showdown between have- and have-not nations of north, south and east, and the bloc too split over its stand on the Palestinian bid for a status upgrade at the UN.
Unprecedented job cuts are threatening stability as unemployment surges to one in four workers in Greece and to a massive one in two under-25s in Spain, whipping up talk of a “lost generation” of European youth.
On Sunday, Nobel Committee chairman Jagland nonetheless stressed that “the disputes and dramas have never led to war. On the contrary they have led to compromises.”
Schulz, a German Socialist at the head of the European parliament, said the award serves as “a warning, an alert” to stick to the ideals of the founders of the bloc in the aftermath of World War II.