ATHENS: “Is this a joke?” asked Chrisoula Panagiotidi, 36, an Athens beautician, laughing derisively upon hearing that the European Union had won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Three days ago she lost her job, becoming one of the one-in-four Greeks who are unemployed in the fifth year of a biting recession. Told it was no joke at all, her incredulity quickly turned to disgust.
“It mocks us and what we are going through right now,” she said. “All it will do is infuriate people here.”
Across a continent where the EU’s policies are blamed for deepening the worst economic crisis in living memory, many Europeans said they were simply baffled by the prize. Others were outraged.
“I can’t get my head around it. They’d be last on my list. It’s such a bland and inert organization,” said Philip Deane, 48, an information technology consultant walking along the River Liffey in Dublin.
“Given the state of the economy, the timing is really, really bad.”
Ireland, like Greece, has been forced to turn to the European Union and IMF for a financial bailout, delivered in the framework of a strict austerity program.
Mariana Fotiou, 69, an Athens lottery ticket vendor, was furious.
“It makes me so angry. We have a financial war on, don’t they realize that? The only morale it will boost is Merkel’s,” she said, referring to the German chancellor, whose insistence on austerity measures as the price for aid has made her a hate figure in Greece.
Earlier this week Merkel visited Athens. Angry protesters burned Nazi flags and clashed with police in fury at her presence.
The irony of awarding the prize at a time when the EU is being pilloried in several European capitals, occasionally by crowds of rioters, was not lost on the Nobel Committee itself.
“The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest. The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU’s most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights,” said Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland in announcing the award in Oslo.
Ed Balls, a politician from the opposition British Labour Party, joked at a panel discussion in Dublin, saying: “They’ll be cheering in Athens tonight, won’t they.”
Yet even in countries hard hit by the tough economic times, there were still many people who said they understood the logic of awarding a prize to an organization credited with helping maintain peace for more than half a century on a continent that was ripped apart in two world wars.
“It’s a good thing,” said 48-year-old Howard Spilane in Ireland, where unemployment has tripled since the crisis hit.
“Europe’s in a crisis, but compared to the wars – even compared to the Cold War – Europe is in a better place. People are suffering, but they are not dying. On balance they have achieved a lot.”
Such warm responses were also common in parts of Eastern Europe, where many prize membership in the EU as a badge of hard-won European identity and a bulwark against a return of Communist-era totalitarianism.
“I am glad of it, although I do find it strange,” said Andras Kocsis, an 18-year-old student in Budapest, the Hungarian capital. “I think it’s right, because indeed the EU does a lot for the rights of the people.”
But even in ex-Communist countries, praise was far from universal for an organization that many have come to resent. Petr Hajek, deputy head of the office of Czech President Vaclav Klaus, who once supported the EU but has since turned against it, said the EU lacked “democratic legitimacy” and was contributing to “animosity among nations.”
“Freedom and democracy are shivering in the corner similar to the way it was in the regimes we experienced in the 20th century in Europe,” he said.
In Bosnia, which hopes to join the bloc but still remembers how a hesitant and divided EU stood by during its 1992-95 war, Kada Hotic called the award “shameful.” Her son, husband and two brothers were among 8,000 Muslim men and boys massacred by Bosnian Serb forces in 1995.