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A noble prize

07 December 2012

Every year, on 10 December, the entire world looks first to Oslo and then to Stockholm: it is the day when the annual Nobel Prize Award ceremonies take place, following a well-tested format and well-rehearsed protocol. This year, the opening event will also mark ‘l’heure de l’Europe’, as the Nobel Peace Prize is given to the European Union. Much has been said and written about the decision taken two months ago by the Nobel Committee chaired by former Norwegian Prime Minister (and current Secretary-General of the Council of Europe) Thorbjorn Hagland. Of all the five awards established by Alfred Nobel at the end of the 19th century - the sixth, for the economy, was created much later (1968) on the initiative of Sweden’s Riksbanken – the Peace Prize has always been the most publicised and, arguably, also the most controversial, in conjunction with the prize for literature and in line, perhaps, with the paradox of having been funded from a personal fortune made from the invention of dynamite.

Beautiful minds – and hearts

Antoine Jacob, a French journalist, has just published an enjoyable Histoire du Prix Nobel - and done so without anticipating the extra headlines prompted by the awarding of the prestigious prize to the EU. In it, he tells what motivated the Swedish businessman Alfred Nobel, shortly before his death on 10 December 1896, to devote a large chunk of his fortune to rewarding the best and the brightest in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature while also conferring to the local parliament in Oslo (Norway was then still part of Sweden) the honour to choose those individuals or organisations who made a special contribution to peace. Ever since, every year in the first week of October, the Nobel Committee discloses the names of the prize winners – one per day, in succession, normally ending with literature – in a very terse but increasingly media savvy format that continous to capture the world’s attention. Yet it is fair to say that it is the Peace Prize that grabs most headlines. Over the decades, well-known statesmen and obscure activists, well-established organisations as well as global and local opinion leaders have alternated on the Oslo stage. Barack Obama (2009) has not been the only serving US president to be awarded the prize – Teddy Roosevelt (1906) and Woodrow Wilson (1919) were too – but he was the first one to get it at the very beginning of his mandate. Gandhi was assassinated months before being nominated (1948), but Martin Luther King received it (1964) before his own assasination. UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjold was given it – exceptionally – right after dying in a helicopter accident in the Congo (1961), while Kofi Annan was present 40 years later to accept it on behalf of the organisation. Actual peacemakers have often been acknowledged, though not without controversy: Kissinger and Le Duc Tho (1973), Begin and Sadat (1978), Mandela and de Klerk (1993), Arafat, Peres and Rabin (1994), Hume and Trimble (1998). Specialised UN agencies and bodies, the Red Cross, Amnesty International, Médécins sans Frontières, all earned a place in the Oslo limelight – as did Willy Brandt (1971), Andrei Sakharov (1975), Lech Walesa (1983), Desmond Tutu (1984), Mikhail Gorbachev (1990) and, of course, Aung San Suu Kyi (1991).

Securing peace

A combination – and alternation – of moral symbolism and Realpolitik has often driven the Committee’s choice, and equally often prompted both praise and criticism. Yet all this is part of the game, and it has not made the Nobel Peace Prize any less noble in its ambition and purpose. This year things have been no different. There might have been some unintended irony in awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union at a time of crisis and self-doubt, and, on top of that, by a country that has rejected EC/EU membership twice. Rather than a reward for the present, however, the prize must be (and has been) seen as a recognition for the past and an encouragement for the future – as was the case with the UN in 2001. Europe is indeed at peace and has managed to spread security in and around the region. European integration has been a gigantic, long-term, incremental peace-building operation carried out with a comprehensive approach and a broad set of policy tools. The current feeling of unfinished business and unfulfilled potential should not obscure its past or cause it to question its present - but rather help it rethink peace and security in the 21st century. The Nobel Committee has mostly honoured life-long achievements in various domains. Occasionally, above all lately, it has showcased a road well taken. This year, by picking the EU, it has done both.