2012 Nobel Peace Prize Goes To European Union

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded its Peace Prize to the European Union — a decision that came as a surprise to many. The committee said it was an award that was long overdue, considering the E.U.'s role in advancing peace since World War II.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Next, let's follow up on today's surprise winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. In effect, it went to most of a continent, the European Union. The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it was a decision that was long overdue considering the EU's role in advancing and maintaining peace since World War II. Here's the chairman of the Nobel Committee, Thorbjoern Jagland.

THORBJOERN JAGLAND: The stabilizing part played by the European Union has helped to transform most of Europe from a continental war to a continental peace.

INSKEEP: OK. So the European Union, most of the continent wins. We're joined by now NPR's Sylvia Poggioli. She's in Berlin. She's a longtime resident of Europe. So Sylvia, congratulations on your Nobel prize.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Thank you, Steve.

INSKEEP: It is kind of amazing, though, 500 million people get the Nobel Peace Prize. I'm sure people will have some fun with this, you know, how to they split the $1.2 million prize money, that sort of thing. But it's a serious award at a serious time for Europe. Why now?

POGGIOLI: Well, yes, the timing is perhaps what's most controversial about this choice, but that might be precisely why the EU was selected as it goes through sort of this midlife crisis, the worst in its history. I'm sure the EU leaders will see this as a boost to give a sort of new sense of mission. The statement of the Nobel Committee said: This is a message to Europe. We should do everything we can to move forward.

They said they want to focus on what has been achieved in Europe in terms of peace and reconciliation and democracy. And they also want to point out, they said, what could happen if the disintegration of Europe starts in extremism and nationalism starts growing in Europe. This is clear reference to the growing anti-EU sentiment and growing doubts about membership in many North European countries and the fear of separatist movements in some regions like Spain, Italy and Scotland.

Generally speaking, opinion polls show that many EU citizens are beginning to be skeptical about membership in the EU and there's a growing distrust of unelected EU officials and the manner in which they've been dealing with the eurozone debt crisis.

INSKEEP: Yeah, I wonder if this Nobel Prize for the European Union is also a kind of history lesson because we think of the European Union being about euros and trade barriers, money and bureaucracy, but the original idea was to knit the continent together so they wouldn't be destroyed in another war.

POGGIOLI: That's exactly right. Remember that until 1945, Europe had been at war for much of the previous 500 years. Germany and France had fought three wars over a 70 year period and now the Nobel Committee statement said war between the two countries is unthinkable. Then in the 1980s, three countries that were coming out of dictatorships, Portugal, Spain and Greece, were able to consolidate democracy in their countries through membership in the EU.

And after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War, Europe was again united with the arrival of several former communist countries in Eastern Europe. Wide-ranging social reforms produced cradle-to-grave welfare states that also kept civil and ideological strife at bay. A couple of years ago, I spoke to a former Belgium prime minister, Mark Eyskens. He said the creation of the EU was not only a stroke of genius, it was a miracle. And he said essentially it created pax Europa. So with NATO providing security, the new European social model could compete with the American way of life.

INSKEEP: They may see it as a miracle, but it looks like a mess right now. In just a few seconds, what kind of reactions are you hearing to this Nobel Prize?

POGGIOLI: Well, certainly from EU officials you hear great joy, but this doesn't hide the fact that the EU has had serious shortcomings in dealing with big challenges, not only the eurozone crisis, because there is still not political union among members. Each cherishes their national sovereignty. So far, the EU has failed to speak with a single voice on globalization, and most worrisome, concerning the phenomenon that has radically changed the physical and social landscape of Europe - immigration. There is still today, no common policy, and this has only helped nourished populism and xenophobia.

INSKEEP: OK, that's NPR correspondent and European resident Sylvia Poggioli. Sylvia, I'll let you get off and prepare your acceptance speech. Congratulations.

POGGIOLI: Thank you, Steve.

(LAUGHTER)

INSKEEP: The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize today.

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