The European Union’s three presidents collected the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday in recognition of six decades of work promoting “peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights”.
Prime Minister David Cameron stayed away – one of six EU leaders to decide not to attend. But his deputy, Nick Clegg, was there to represent the UK in the splendour of the Nobel Institute in Oslo.
Attendees heard Nobel Committee President Thorbjoern Jagland praise the EU’s role in transforming a European “continent of war” into a “continent of peace”.
He said: “That should not be taken for granted – we have to struggle for it every day”.
Mr Jagland emphasised that the same prize had been awarded in the 1920s to the foreign ministers of France and Germany marking post-First World War reconciliation. Then in the 1930s the continent had degenerated into conflict and war once more.
But he said now was the time to celebrate prolonged peace – and welcome the French and German leaders sitting side by side in Oslo.
However, the announcement of the peace award in October caused surprise and controversy in the midst of one of the EU’s worst crises and at a time of deep – albeit non-violent – rifts between major member states.
Yesterday’s ceremony comes in the week of yet another EU summit to try to resolve the continuing euro-crisis which, according to UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage risks “engendering violence, poverty and despair across Europe”.
But European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said: “This is an award for the European project – for the people and the institutions – that day after day, for the last 60 years, have built a new Europe.
“We will honour this prize and we will preserve what has been achieved. It is in the common interest of our citizens. And it will allow Europe to contribute in shaping that ‘better organised world’ in line with the values of freedom, democracy, human rights and rule of law that we cherish and believe in.
“The last 60 years have shown that Europe can unite in peace. Over the next 60 years, Europe must lead the global quest for peace.”
Receiving the award alongside him were the President of the European Council Herman Van Rompuy and the President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz.
The presentation took weeks of behind-the-scenes discussions in Brussels to agree which of the EU presidents should perform what function at the Oslo ceremony.
In the end it was agreed that only two of the three would speak – Mr Barroso and Mr Van Rompuy.
The third, Mr Schulz, who made clear during negotiations that he represented the only democratically-elected EU institution, received the peace medal on behalf of all three.
The Nobel Prize money – about £755,000 – is to go to a children’s charity.
Mr Van Rompuy told the Nobel ceremony audience: “At a time of uncertainty, this day reminds people across Europe and the world of the Union’s fundamental purpose: to further the fraternity between European nations, now and in the future.”
Mr Barroso declared: “Our Union is more than an association of states. It is a new legal order, which is not based on the balance of power between nations but on the free consent of states to share sovereignty.”
Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International’s European Institutions Office warned: “EU leaders mustn’t bask in the glow of the prize.
“Xenophobia and intolerance are on the rise throughout Europe, and growing numbers of political leaders are promoting anti-Muslim, anti-Roma, anti-migrant, and anti-LGBTI messages and enjoying increasing popularity.
“Europeans are in danger of forgetting some hard-learnt lessons from their past about the importance of not relinquishing human rights and the rule of law which protect individuals from persecution.”