Former Solidarity leader Lech Walesa and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev won their Nobel Peace Prizes for helping to reunify and stabilize the European continent: “Now it is the EU’s turn,” declared Norwegian Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjørn Jagland on Monday, to thunderous applause from around 1,000 guests inside Oslo’s City Hall.
Jagland, who’s been both criticized and ridiculed for his role in awarding the Peace Prize to the European Union, could enjoy praise on Monday nearly equalling that heaped on the Peace Prize winners. Reaction to the prize ceremony and its traditional speeches was overwhelmingly positive, with even many EU skeptics in Norway, which has refused to join the EU, voicing praise for the decision when viewed in an historical context.
Everyone suddenly seemed to agree with Jagland and the Nobel Committee, that the EU deserved the prize for playing an important role in keeping the peace among its member nations for many decades, and in promoting freedom and democracy not least in the southern and eastern portions of the continent. From Spain to Serbia, the EU has or is playing a role in promoting “fraternity among nations,” Jagland stressed, in line with Alfred Nobel’s will.
Former Norwegian Prime Minister Kjell Magne Bondevik, among those who has opposed EU membership, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) there was “no doubt” the EU has been an important force in creating stability and democracy. He hopes the prize will strengthen the EU’s commitment to continue such efforts.
Even Kristin Halvorsen, the former head of the anti-EU Socialist Left party (SV) said she “understands the history” behind the prize and respects it, while former Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland, who supported moves towards EU membership for Norway, said the prize had been deserved for many years. The Center Party politicians who stayed away from the prize ceremony on Monday because they believed the EU unworthy of the prize, wound up among the few who remained critical, and looking “foolish” by some accounts.
Monday’s ceremony had what Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg called its “magical moments,” such as when Jagland noted how significant it was that both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Francois Hollande were present at the ceremony, given the importance of Franco-German reconciliation after World War II. Merkel was sitting between Hollande and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a symbol of former enemies becoming allies, and when loud applause continued unabated, Hollande and Merkel spontaneously took each other’s hand, stood up and raised their arms overhead in a sign of victory.
Jagland also paid tribute to how former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl took responsibility for the reunification of Germany after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, accepting enormous costs. “Thank you very much,” Jagland said, hoping similar progress can be made in reunifying the Balkans as its countries continue to become EU members. Croatia will join next summer.
“We are not gathered here in the belief the European Union is perfect,” Jagland said. “We are gathered to work together.” He stressed the need for the “institutions” the EU has to ensure “that we do not ruin” what has been built on former battlegrounds.
The leaders of two of those EU institutions also spoke, with the EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso calling the European Union “our common house” and declaring that “we will stand by” its euro. He called the EU “a work in progress” where “one person’s gain doesn’t need to be another’s gain.” He also hailed hailed human rights activists including those who have won the Nobel Peace Prize in earlier years, declaring that “No prison wall can silence their voice, we hear them in this room today.”
EU President Herman Van Rompuy delivered both a poignant and humourous acceptance speech, in which he marveled over how EU parliamentarians from land-locked countries can passionately debate fish quotas, while parliamentarians from Scandinavian countries enthusiastically take part in discussions over prices for olive oil. Van Rompuy, a Belgian born just after World War II ended, called the EU “a perpetual peace congress,” also in line with Alfred Nobel’s will, and a union “that has perfected the art of compromise.”
Peace, he said, “is still our union’s ultimate purpose” and stressed that “we remain fully responsible for what’s to come.” The current EU crisis “puts the political bonds of our union to the test” at a time when high unemployment and financial hardship is “hardening hearts.” He cited both US Presidents Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln in declaring that “yes, we can” revive prosperity and quoting form the Gettysburg Address about how profound difficulties can test whether the union “can long endure.”
It was his variation of the late US President John F Kennedy’s famous declaration in Berlin many years ago, however, that brought tears to the eyes of some observers and a lengthy standing ovation: “Ich bin ein Europäer!” Followed by “Je suis fier d’etre européen” and finally, “I am proud to be a European.”
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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