Maybe they gave the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union because they couldn't think of anybody else who wouldn't embarrass them. Nelson Mandela already has one. So does Aung San Suu Kyi. Even Barak Obama has one, though what for is not exactly clear. They even gave it to Henry Kissinger once, but we probably shouldn't go into that. So who's left? We'll just give it to the European Union. Nobody'll notice that.
But they did notice, and some of them were not amused. "A Nobel prize for the EU at a time Brussels and all of Europe is collapsing in misery? What next? An Oscar for (European Council President Herman) Van Rompuy?" asked Geert Wilders, the Dutch eurosceptic. "Rather than bring peace and harmony, the EU will cause insurgency and violence," warned Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party (which wants Britain to leave the Union).
And France's leading newspaper, Le Monde, asked on its website: "But who will go to Oslo for the EU to receive the Nobel Peace Prize? As trivial as it may seem, the question raises (the legitimacy) of an entity...whose institutional stops and starts and lack of democratic representation are regularly criticized."
It's actually not a trivial question at all, because the large EU bureaucracy that is based in Brussels, the EU's "capital," was not elected by anybody, and nobody loves it. The member countries are all democracies, but the decisions at the continent-wide level are taken by governmental elites who do not trust their own citizens to vote the right way.
The EU was an elite project from the start, and policy for the 27-member union is still set mostly by politicians and officials, not by citizens. So don't send a Brussels bureaucrat to Oslo to collect the prize. Send some ordinary citizen, chosen by lot, to represent the 500 million citizens of EU countries who don't even have a vote on most EU decisions.
However, don't throw the baby out with the bath-water. The original purpose of the Nobel Peace Prize was to honour people who worked to put an end to the terrible wars that have repeatedly devastated the European continent (and much of the rest of the world as well) over the past four centuries. The EU has made a major contribution to that task, but that is not its greatest achievement.
It has been 67 years since there was a major war in Europe. Indeed, there have been no wars in Europe at all, apart from the various civil wars in the 1990s in former Yugoslavia (which was not a EU member). More importantly, a war between any of the EU's member countries is now quite unthinkable.
"This started after the (Second World) war — putting together former enemies," said EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso in an interview with the BBC. "It started with six countries and we are now 27, another one (Croatia) is going to join us next year and more want to come. So the EU is the most important project for peace in terms of transnational, supernational co-operation."
That's a bit over the top. The United Nations surely has more to do with 67 years in which no great powers have fought each other. So do two generations of American and Soviet officials and politicians who showed great restraint and managed to avoid a nuclear war that would have devastated the whole world. You could even give some credit to nuclear weapons themselves, which forced the great powers to behave more prudently than usual.
The great virtue of the European Union, despite its "democratic deficit" at the Brussels level, is that ALL its member countries must be fully democratic, relatively uncorrupt, and fully observant of civil and human rights. Not only has this prevented some members from backsliding into intolerance and authoritarianism in times of great stress; it has also been a huge incentive for prospective members to clean up their act.
Would Greece, Spain and Portugal all have ended up as full democracies after overthrowing their old dictators, and in the latter two cases as relatively honest ones as well, if not for the changes they had to make to qualify for EU membership?
Would the nine ex-Communist countries of Central Europe that emerged from the long night of Soviet tyranny in 1989 have created modern civil societies practically overnight without a great deal of aid from the EU? Would they even have bothered, without the incentive of future EU membership?
Would Turkey have striven so hard to entrench respect for civil rights in the law and force the military to retire to their barracks permanently if it had not been offered the prospect (sadly betrayed) of EU membership?
The Nobel Peace Prize is a misnomer. It should actually be the Nobel Democracy and Human Rights Prize. Occasionally it goes to some person or organization whose main purpose is building international peace, but much more often it goes to people like Nelson Mandela, Aung San Suu Kyi, and most recently Liu Xiaobo, whose accomplishment, or at least goal, has been to make their own countries democratic and respectful of human rights.
And if that is the real criterion, then the European Union truly does deserve the prize.
Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.