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EU's Nobel highlights bloc's divisions

08 December 2012, 11:47 CET
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(BRUSSELS) - The European Union collects its Nobel peace prize next week as it seeks a way out of the disarray left by yet another "annus horribilis" of roller-coaster economic crisis and political infighting.

Monday's award for turning a continent at war into a continent at peace comes at a testing time for the 27-nation union, unable to stand united to collect the prize as it struggles to weather its worst crisis in 60 years.

Half a dozen EU leaders, including Britain's premier David Cameron, are snubbing an event held even as the union prepares to enlarge by embracing Croatia as its 28th member next year.

"I personally won't be going. . . . There will be enough other people," Cameron said amid talk of a referendum on Britain's future EU relations or possible exit -- "Brixit".

On hand in Oslo will be leaders of the "big two" powers France and Germany, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel. But relations between these two are rocky, notably holding up a deal to set up a banking union which comes down to the wire four days after the Nobel ceremony.

The deal on the banks is key to the future of the EU, which stands at a crossroads between more union and more federalism -- or more uncertainty.

On the Nobel podium will be unelected EU leaders little known to the half a billion people they represent -- EU president Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso -- as well as European parliament head Martin Schulz.

As they pick up the Nobel medal, diploma, and near one-million-euro prize, increasing weariness with the Brussels "bureaucratic monster" is feeding the continent-wide rise of eurosceptic and nationalist parties.

Days after the EU scooped the 2012 Nobel -- triggering simultaneous praise and criticism -- the bloc's leaders solemnly pledged to uphold the ideals of the founding fathers.

"At a time of uncertainty, this tribute to past achievements is a strong appeal to safeguard and strengthen Europe for the next generation," they said in a joint summit statement.

"Aware that advancing this community of peaceful interests requires constant care and an unwavering will, the members of the European Council regard it as their personal responsibility to ensure Europe remains a continent of progress and prosperity."

--- 'Sapping our influence and credibility' --

Yet barely a month later, little was left of such lofty sentiments as efforts to agree the EU's next multi-year budget collapsed in an ugly showdown between the rich nations of northern Europe and the struggling economies of the south.

Likewise it took months of protracted talks this year for the pro- and anti-austerity nations that share the euro to honour pledges to rescue cradle-of-democracy member Greece.

Meanwhile street protests are mushrooming as unemployment surges to one in four workers in Greece and to a massive one in two under-25s in Spain, whipping up talk of a "lost generation" of European youth.

Yet some 25 summits and a score of emergency overnight ministerial talks held in the past three years of economic crisis have seemed at times to yield little more than division and disarray.

Despite a bid to speak with a single voice on the world stage, the EU split three ways last week at the UN vote to upgrade Palestine's status, 14 members voting in favour, 12 abstaining and the Czech Republic voting against.

"Our incapacity to take a joint stand on so many issues is sapping our influence and credibility on the international scene," said Foreign Minister Didier Reynders of Belgium, one of the original six EU founder nations.

Efforts by Van Rompuy and Barroso to chart a way forward by tightening economic, monetary, and eventually political union, likewise repeatedly stumble, with efforts for a first-step banking union currently in an impasse.

"Europe faces the same sort of challenge it faced on birth," said Jean-Dominique Giuliani, head of the Robert Schuman Foundation, set up to honour the French politician who drove the first steps towards the EU's creation in the wake of World War II.

"Now either Europe surmounts the challenge and stays in the race, or it throws more sticking-plaster on a dying system and it becomes sidelined," he said. "Like the founding fathers, the first thing is to sort the economic problems, the political solutions will follow."

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