Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo stirs debate on EU membership

Fresh talk among hosts about merits of joining European bloc ahead of peace prize award

PUBLISHED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 December, 2012, 4:12am

As it struggles for popularity within its own borders, the European Union today collects one of the world's top honours, the Nobel Peace Prize - and in a country that stubbornly refuses to join its ranks.

Norway is a tranquil, opulent nation thanks to its abundant oil and gas reserves; the EU a continent wracked by painful austerity drives and violent protests. The two could not seem further apart.

Yet it is in Oslo that the EU will pick up its Nobel Prize for its half-century contribution to reconciliation, democracy and human rights.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to honour the 27-member union, announced in October, renewed the Scandinavian country's impassioned debate on the sensitive issue of EU membership, which Norwegians twice rejected in referendums in 1972 and 1994 and which three-quarters of the population still oppose.

Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, himself pro-European, hastily pointed out that the Nobel did not signify any change in his country's relationship to the EU. In a telling sign, several cabinet ministers from the Centre Party, a vehemently eurosceptic Stoltenberg ally, will not take part in the Nobel ceremony, officially due to scheduling reasons, and dozens of organisations called a protest yesterday.

According to Norway's "No to EU" umbrella group, the union is suffering from woes that sit poorly with the Nobel: a defence policy that goes against demilitarisation, a crisis evoking "riots and extremism", aggressive trade policies for poor countries and shutting its doors to refugees.

"In the last years, instead of this picture of unity, 'one for all and all for one', it is now splitting up between North and South, rich and poor, inside the euro zone and outside the euro zone, and so on," said the head of the group, Heming Olaussen.

Historically, "in the Norwegian debate, the EU's role of peacemaker has never been central", political scientist Bernt Aardal said.

"Even among those who support membership, it's generally been the economic argument that has dominated."

Against that background, the EU's current debt crisis has had an impact on even the most ardent of supporters, with the Movement for Europe halting its push for Norwegian membership. It now calls for "closer ties".

Norway and the EU collaborate very closely, with the Scandinavian country a member of the Schengen agreement, on unfettered travel across borders, and of the European Economic Area. But it has no vote in Brussels.

Critics have suggested that the chairman of the Nobel Committee, the ardently pro-European Thorbjoern Jagland, took advantage of the prolonged sick leave of a vehemently eurosceptic member of the committee, Aagot Valle, to get his way.