Flags of European countries fly outside the European Parliament building… (Geert Vanden Wijngaert…)
LONDON — In some European capitals, they mutter about a Fourth Reich and compare the German chancellor to Adolf Hitler. The French complain about British obstructionism; Brits complain about everyone else. In Spain, a separatist movement is gaining traction.
But the Nobel committee chose to take the long view on Friday, awarding the 2012 Peace Prize to the European Union. The panel reasoned that even if economic divisions are tearing at the harmony Europeans have spent decades building, it no longer seems possible that they will start killing each other again.
From a handful of countries whose leaders shook hands amid the rubble of World War II, the EU has become a 27-nation club of free trade and travel, with more states pressing to join.
"The union and its forerunners have, over six decades, contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe," said Thorbjorn Jagland, chairman of the Norway-based committee. "Reconciliation has become a reality."
So have name-calling and finger-pointing.
Parties contemptuous of the EU have risen in the polls across the continent as national economies sink into recession. Street protests occur almost daily in hard-hit countries such as Greece and Italy, where angry residents have singled out German Chancellor Angela Merkel for her insistence on fiscal austerity.
Secessionist groups are pressing their cause from Belgium to Italy. And in eternally "Euroskeptic" Britain, some want a referendum on whether to get out of the European Union altogether.
Regeno Para, a factory worker in Madrid, said many Spaniards now associate the EU with brutal budget cuts, which are the bloc's chief strategy to combat the debt crisis. In Spain, 1 in 4 workers is out of a job, as is 1 of 2 young people.
"The most important thing for most people these days is the crisis — paying their mortgages and not losing their homes," Para said. "Sure, the EU might be a tool for peace.... But it's not the foremost thing on people's minds here right now."
For believers in the European dream, however, announcement of the prize came as a welcome morale boost in difficult times, which Jagland made clear was exactly what the Nobel committee intended.
"The Nobel Peace Prize committee and in fact the international community are now sending a very important message to Europe: that the European Union is something very precious, that we should cherish it for the good of Europeans and indeed for the good of all the world," said Jose Manuel Barroso, head of the European Commission, the EU's executive arm.
This is not the first time that the choice of recipient of the world's most prestigious prize has generated controversy. When President Obama won it in 2009, many critics said it was an award simply for not being George W. Bush.
There was some criticism Friday over the decision to recognize an institution rather than an individual. In Russia, veteran activist Svetlana Gannushkina, a perennial nominee, called the committee's choice "absurd."
"It is a prize that in my opinion goes nowhere," said Gannushkina, a board member of the human rights group Memorial. "Who gets the prize, the nations of the European Union or the bureaucratic structure that manages it?
"And after all, European states haven't been all that peaceful in recent years," she added. "They fought in Yugoslavia, Iraq, and they are still fighting in Afghanistan."
But precedent exists for picking an organization: The United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency won in 2005, and the charity Doctors without Borders was honored in 1999.
Jagland noted that some postwar leaders who helped promote European unity had received the award, and so it was fitting that the organization they fostered should follow suit. He made special mention of France and Germany, which fought three wars in the span of 70 years.
"Today, war between Germany and France is unthinkable," Jagland said. "Historic enemies can become close partners."
So close, in fact, that some smaller countries quietly resent the Franco-German alliance that pretty much sets the EU's agenda.
Both were charter members of the EU's first incarnation, the European Coal and Steel Community, which comprised just six Western European nations. Today's expanded club constitutes the world's largest trading bloc, includes former Soviet satellites such as Hungary and Romania, and allows its 500 million citizens to move freely from one EU country to another.
And the euro, despite its serious problems, remains one of the world's most important currencies. It can be used in the banks, shops and restaurants of 17 nations.
In terms of promoting peace, however, critics say the EU's record is mixed at best. For holding Europe together throughout the second half of the 20th century, especially in the face of the Soviet threat, NATO deserves just as much, if not more, credit, they say.