EU gets Nobel Peace Prize despite economic divisions

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LONDON -- In some European capitals, they mutter about a Fourth Reich and compare the German chancellor to Adolf Hitler. The French complain about British obstructionism; Brits complain about everyone else. In Spain, a separatist movement is gaining traction.

But the Nobel Committee chose to take the long view Friday, awarding the 2012 Peace Prize to the European Union. The panel reasoned that even if economic divisions are tearing at the harmony Europeans have spent decades building, it no longer seems possible that they would start killing each other again.

From a handful of countries whose leaders shook hands amid the rubble of World War II, the EU has become a 27-nation club of free trade and travel, with more states pressing to join.

"The union and its forerunners have, over six decades, contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe," said Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. "Reconciliation has become a reality."

So has name-calling and finger-pointing. Parties contemptuous of the EU have risen in the polls across the continent, as national economies sink into recession. Street protests occur almost daily in hard-hit nations such as Greece and Italy, where angry residents have singled out German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her insistence on fiscal austerity.

Secessionist groups are pressing their cause from Belgium to Italy. And in eternally "Euroskeptic" Britain, some want a referendum on whether to get out of the European Union altogether.

In Spain, 1 in 4 workers is out of a job, as is 1 of every 2 young people. For believers in the European dream, however, announcement of the prize came as a welcome morale boost in difficult times, which Mr. Jagland made clear was exactly what the Nobel Committee intended.

"The Nobel Peace Prize committee, and, in fact, the international community are now sending a very important message to Europe: that the European Union is something very precious, that we should cherish it for the good of Europeans and, indeed, for the good of all the world," said Jose Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.

This is not the first time the choice of a recipient for the world's most prestigious prize has generated controversy. When President Barack Obama won in 2009, many critics said it was an award simply for his not being former President George W. Bush.

Mr. Jagland made special mention of France and Germany, which fought three wars in the space of 70 years.

Both were charter members of the EU's first incarnation, the European Coal and Steel Community, which comprised just six Western European nations.

Today's expanded club constitutes the world's largest trading bloc, includes former Soviet satellites such as Hungary and Romania, and allows its 500 million citizens to move freely from one EU nation to another.

In terms of promoting peace, however, critics say the EU's track record is mixed, at best. For holding Europe together throughout the second half of the 20th century, especially in the face of the Soviet threat, NATO deserves just as much, if not more, credit, they say.

Fumbling EU diplomacy also failed to prevent the Balkan wars of the 1990s, the worst outbreak of armed conflict on European soil after World War II. Tens of thousands were killed, but of the new nations that emerged from the former Yugoslavia, one is a full EU member, and most of the rest are aspiring to membership.

Not so Norway, ironically, where the peace prize is awarded; Norwegians have twice voted to stay out of the EU.

The prize comes with $1.2 million, a drop in the bucket for the EU, which has shelled out tens of billions of dollars to bail out three of its members -- Greece, Ireland and Portugal.

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