BRUSSELS / LONDON / UNITED NATIONS: Europe’s leaders hailed Friday’s award of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the EU in recognition of 60 years without war but critics attacked it as misplaced, even undeserved.
Alongside congratulations, there were calls too for the EU to live up to its responsibilities as the bloc struggles with soaring unemployment and a slumping economy – causes enough for war in the past.
Eurosceptics meanwhile found in the award fresh grounds for complaint against an institution they see as overblown, over-extended, and damaging to the true interests of its people.
“This goes to show that the Norwegians really do have a sense of humor,” said European Parliament member Nigel Farage, head of the U.K. Independence Party, who wants a referendum on Britain leaving the EU.
“The EU may be getting the booby prize for peace because it sure hasn’t created prosperity. The EU has created poverty and unemployment for millions,” Farage charged.
British Prime Minister David Cameron made no comment on the event. “I don’t think we’re intending on putting anything out,” a spokesman for the prime minister said after repeated requests for comment.
Britain’s Foreign Office issued a two-sentence statement several hours after the announcement.
“This award recognizes the EU’s historic role in promoting peace and reconciliation in Europe, particularly through its enlargement to Central and Eastern Europe,” it said.
Lech Walesa, who won the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize for leading Poland’s anti-communist movement, said he was “unpleasantly surprised” by the award.
“Certainly the European Union is trying to change Europe and the world in a peaceful way but it gets paid to do that,” while individual activists routinely make sacrifices and take huge risks to do so, Walesa said.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus echoed Walesa disenchantment calling EU’s award a “tragic mistake.”
“I really thought it was a hoax, a joke. I couldn’t imagine even in a dream that someone could be serious about it,” added Klaus, quoted by the CTK news agency.
Klaus also slammed the prize being awarded to an institution, saying it made sense if awarded to “a specifically defined personality for a certain unique achievement.”
In marked contrast, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was fulsome in her praise. “Let me congratulate the European Union ... it’s quite remarkable to see how unified and peaceful Europe is in the 21st century and that did not happen by coincidence,” Clinton said.
“It happened because of the very hard work and dedication of leaders and citizens across Europe.”
U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon also congratulated the EU, calling the prize a “richly deserved recognition” of its achievements.
“The European Union has more than lived up to its founding dream of forging a united and peaceful continent out of the devastation of two world wars,” Ban said.
Ban praised it as “an engine of integration” that had achieved peace within Europe’s borders built on dialogue and the rule of the law, creating “a model to be emulated the world over.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany said naming the EU was a “wonderful” decision. The prize given by the Nobel Committee in Oslo “honors the idea of European integration,” Merkel said, noting the “years of terrible bloodshed, horrible wars, murder and devastation” that had come before.
French President Francois Hollande welcomed the award as “a great honor” and said Europe must show it is “worthy” of the award.
“This Nobel Prize is a great honor conferred on Europe,” Hollande said at a press conference on a visit to Dakar.
“Europe has won an award today because it has been able to carry on this great adventure of union, peace and rights,” he noted. But Europe must also be able to offer growth, progress, jobs and solidarity, as well as major projects for durable development and cultural exchange, he stressed.
Top EU leaders themselves were aglow with pride.
“I have to say that when I woke up this morning I did not expect it to be such a good day,” was the first response from a beaming Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission head more used to a daily diet of criticism over the bloc’s economic travails.