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22nd Jan 2022

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2012: EU's Nobel Peace Prize for 'fraternity between nations'

  • The European Council president (l), Herman Van Rompuy, collecting the Nobel Peace Prize in 2012, together with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso (c) and European Parliament president Martin Schulz (r) (Photo: European Council)

The Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the European Union in 2012, with the citation "for over six decades [of having] contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe".

The Norwegian Nobel Committee unanimously decided that developments in Europe after World War II represented the "fraternity between nations" and "peace congresses" cited by Alfred Nobel as his criteria for the peace prize in his 1895 will.

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  • 'The ceremony had a high symbolic value, emotionally and politically,' said the then president of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy (Photo: Bundesregierung/Bergmann)

During the prize ceremony in Oslo, German chancellor Angela Merkel and the then French president Francois Hollande stood up and, with their hands joined, saluted the crowd - leaving one of the most memorable images of the event.

Other heads of state and government also participated in the event, but the representative of a key country in Europe's history was missing. The decision of the former British prime minister David Cameron - several years before he called his Brexit referendum - to be absent at the celebration of EU reconciliation still raises some eyebrows.

"The ceremony had a high symbolic value, emotionally and politically," said the then president of the European Council, Belgium's Herman Van Rompuy, who collected the prize together with European Commission president José Manuel Barroso and European Parliament president Martin Schulz.

"I think a lot of people had worked, for quite a long time, in the Nobel committee to give the prize to the European Union, because it is still the biggest peace project in the whole [of] European history," Van Rompuy told EUobserver.

The former head of the European Council described the event as one of the highlights of his political career.

In his acceptance speech, Van Rompuy invoked his own family history, pointing out how evident the memories of World War II remain today for many citizens across the bloc.

"We managed to push aside war, hopefully forever, but we should always recall this - even in times when there are no threats of war [in the EU]," he said, referring to one of the underlying messages of the prize.

"The other part of the message is still: be grateful, never forget [times of war] because it can always recommence," he said, adding that "history repeats itself, but never in the same way".

Some critical voices, and some former winners of the peace prize, slammed the choice of the EU for the award, arguing that some of the bloc's policies opposed the principles and values associated with Nobel's prize.

However, Van Rompuy argued that "we cannot compare social conflicts or political antagonism, with the cruel wars between big nations in the previous centuries".

The European Union rose from the ashes of World War II, breaking a cycle of violence and vengeance on the continent, while aiming to bring a better future. But it is not perfect, and it cannot be idealised.

"In Europe, there will always be differences [among member states]," said Van Rompuy, adding that these contrasts are evidenced from north to south, and from east to west, in a wide range of areas, from the economy to migration-related challenges.

"The question is whether there is sufficient political will and political courage to find compromises and solutions, and to show solidarity - that is absolutely key," he said.

"In a society where individualisation is much more present for all kinds of reasons, solidarity takes an effort - it is not a natural feeling," Van Rompuy warned.

The Nobel Peace Prize itself consists of an amount of 8m Swedish Krona [€785,000 in 2020], a gold medal and a diploma. The prize money was given to projects that support children affected by war and conflicts, while the medal and the diploma were among the first objects of the permanent exhibition of the House of European History, which opened in 2014.

This article first appeared in EUobserver's latest magazine, 20 years of European journalism & history, which you can now read in full online.
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