When a Norwegian committee awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union Friday, it raised eyebrows around the world. In the past, the prize has gone to such transformational figures as Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. Giving it instead to the EU, a diverse group of 27 states and half a billion people, feels like a cop-out. It’s as if the Nobel Prize in Economics had gone to the Fortune 500 or the peace prize itself to motherhood and apple pie.
If nothing else, the prize should boost morale at EU headquarters in Brussels at a time when the future of the organization is deeply uncertain. The economic travails of members such as Greece and Italy have put strains on the euro, the union’s common currency, and have highlighted how the nations of Europe are simultaneously too united and not nearly united enough. In citing the EU’s role in keeping the peace in Europe for six decades, the Nobel committee reminded the world that there’s more to the union than its current woes.
Still, most Nobel Peace Prizes make an implicit statement about current affairs. Is this one saying that the EU’s stronger states, most notably Germany, should ease up on Greece and others to keep the union together? Or are the Norwegians, whose country conspicuously stayed out of the euro, telling the union’s weaker economies that they should feel grateful for the help they’re getting from Brussels? A prize to Greek protesters or German central bankers would have sent a clearer message. But amid anxieties across a continent whose major powers plunged the world into war twice in the last century, a vaguer, warmer message surely can’t hurt.