EU's Nobel Prize Win: Deserved but Awkward

A continent in crisis gets a surprise--and encouragement--in its Nobel Peace Prize win.

The Grand Committee's chairman Mia-Petra Kumpula, left, welcomes European Union President Belgian Herman Van Rompuy, right, as he arrives to The Grand Committee at the Parliament house in Helsinki, Finland, Friday Oct. 12, 2012.
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The Nobel Peace Prize went to 500 million lucky recipients today, when the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded it to the 27-nation European Union. While there are plenty of proud Europeans, the reaction has also included widespread surprise and criticism. EU jokes abounded on Twitter this morning (including numerous jabs about how the union won the prize for peace and certainly not for economics). Some have been less charitable: As one UK politician put it, "This goes to show that the Norwegians really do have a sense of humor," as Reuters reported.

[READ: Crisis-Ridden EU Wins Nobel Peace Prize]

The committee credited a united Europe for guiding a change "from a continent of wars to a continent of peace" after World War II, as Nobel Committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said in announcing the winner.

"The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy, and human rights in Europe," Jagland said.

Was it warranted? It's hard to disagree with the committee's characterization of the union as a force for peace, says one expert.

"I think the European Union is without question one of the great peacemaking successes of the modern era," says Charles Kupchan, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. "And you know that because you go to Europe today and you drive across the Franco-German border, and there are no soldiers, no border patrols, you don't even change money. And that's a miracle in some way."

But what about the timing? If the European Union has been promoting peace for 60 years, is it odd to give it one of the most prestigious awards in the world now, just as a major economic crisis in the euro area threatens the global economy?

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"There's no question that the timing is awkward in that the European Union is in the midst of its gravest crisis since the project of integration began after World War II," Kupchan says.

Jagland addressed those considerable difficulties and seemed to hint that the prize carries with it a message of encouragement for the future, along with congratulations for the past.

"We want to focus on what has been achieved in Europe in terms of peace and reconciliation and we want to remind us all what can happen if this integration stops and if we let extremism and nationalism start growing again in Europe," Jagland said.

Even with all of the union's qualifications there is plenty of skepticism about whether the EU was the best choice.

"It's not that I think it is necessarily undeserving of it, but on the other hand, I can't really say that I think it is the most obvious candidate either," says Jacob Funk Kirkegaard, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Washington think tank. He adds, "Without being rude about it, it suggests that they were short of other eligible candidates."

The award comes alongside another uncomfortable fact: that it has come from a nation whose citizens have rejected EU membership not once, but twice: in 1972 and 1994, according to Reuters. As recently as December 2011, one poll showed that only 12.6 percent of Norwegians favored joining the EU.

"There is a certain awkwardness there—that Norway has decided to stay outside the union, yet the Nobel committee has just given a great honor to a political institution that the Norwegians have yet to embrace," says Kupchan. The five members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, which award the Peace Prize, are appointed by Norway's parliament.

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Though the award was unquestionably surprising, one expert says that this fact alone makes the latest Nobel Peace Prize choice unsurprising.

"The committee has never shied away from controversy," says Scheherazade Rehman, director of the European Union Research Center at George Washington University. "This is something that we know, whether it's giving Obama the Nobel Prize even while this country was waging two wars, or giving it to the EU now, even though they're in the midst of the most severe crisis, threatening to derail the rest of the world's economic growth."