LONDON » While some Europeans swelled with pride when the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize, howls of derision erupted from the continent’s large band of skeptics.
To many in the 27-nation bloc, the EU is an unwieldy and unloved agglomeration overseen by a top-heavy bureaucracy devoted to creating arcane regulations about everything from cheese to fishing quotas. Set up with noble goals after the devastation of World War II, the EU to critics now appears impotent amid a debt crisis that has widened north-south divisions, threatened the euro currency and plunged several members, from Greece to Ireland to Spain, into economic turmoil.
WHAT WERE THEY THINKING?
The vocal anti-EU politicians known as euroskeptics burst into a chorus of disdain.
“First Al Gore, then Obama, now this. Parody is redundant,” tweeted Daniel Hannan, a euroskeptic European lawmaker — yes, such things exist — from Britain’s Conservative Party. President Barack Obama won the peace prize in 2009, less than a year after he was elected, while Gore, a former U.S. vice president, was the 2007 recipient for his campaign to fight climate change.
Nigel Farage, head of the U.K. Independence Party — which wants Britain to withdraw from the union — called today’s peace prize “an absolute disgrace.”
“Haven’t they had their eyes open?” he said, arguing that Europe was facing “increasing violence and division,” with mass protests from Madrid to Athens over tax hikes and job cuts and growing resentment of Germany, the union’s rich and powerful economic anchor.
Dutch populist lawmaker Geert Wilders scoffed: “Nobel prize for the EU. At a time (when) Brussels and all of Europe is collapsing in misery. What next?”
In France, euroskeptics assailed the prize from the far left — where critics see the euro and the EU as capitalist tools — to the anti-immigrant far right.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, said the Nobel committee has to “come down from their ivory tower and see what is going on on the ground. They should measure the suffering of the people and see the growing revolt.”
ANGER ON THE STREETS
In hard-hit countries such as Greece and Spain, where the European debt crisis has sparked severe hardship, unemployment and violent protests, the prize was met with disbelief.
“The peace prize? The way things are going, what will happen in the immediate future? Peace is the one thing we might not have,” said Giorgos Dertilis, an insurance company worker in Athens.
THE SOUND OF ONE HAND CLAPPING
Britain, which has been an EU member since the 1970s but likes to keep an English Channel-wide distance between itself and the union, gave a muted reaction. Prime Minister David Cameron’s office had no comment — a safe policy for the leader of a Conservative Party deeply divided between pro- and anti-EU camps.
The Foreign Office noted, tersely, that the award “recognizes the EU’s historic role in promoting peace and reconciliation in Europe,” and said the body “must always strive to preserve and strengthen those achievements.”
Conservative lawmaker and former foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind, whose party is deeply divided on Britain’s role in the EU, probably spoke for many Britons when he called the decision slightly eccentric.
“If they want to give the prize for preserving the peace in Europe, they should divide it between NATO and the EU,” he said. “Until the end of the Cold War, it was NATO more than anyone else that kept the peace.”
Others praised the union’s role in reuniting post-Communist Europe but pointed out its failures — including the inability to halt the bloody Balkan wars that raged just outside the EU’s borders during the 1990s.
And Nicolas Beger, director of Amnesty International’s Brussels-based EU office, said the union was neglecting its duty to the rest of the world.
“The EU doesn’t even take remotely its fair share of the refugees of the world,” he said. “It closes its borders, it pushes people back into countries where they are being tortured, it lets them drown.”
WHAT’S IN IT FOR ME?
Some Europeans wondered whether all of the EU’s 500 million residents could claim a share of the glory — and the $1.2 million prize money.
“I’ve just won the Nobel Peace Prize? How exciting,” tweeted CNN’s British talk show host Piers Morgan.
“As a member of the EU, I am delighted to accept the Nobel Peace Prize,” British playwright Dan Rebellato joked on Twitter. “I shall keep it in the spare room, in case people want to look at it.”
BBC business correspondent Robert Peston wondered whether everyone in the EU would get a share of the prize money, which works out to about a quarter of a cent per person.
“What will you spend yours on?” he asked followers on Twitter.