Euro Zone
Euro zone GDP probably stopped contracting in the second quarter after a record six quarters of decline. Reuters

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has revealed the winner of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, and it’s a doozy.

Thorbjorn Jagland, head of the decision committee and a former Prime Minister of Norway, stood before a roomful of reporters to make his announcement.

“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2012 is to be awarded to the European Union,” he said. “The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.”

Now, the gears are in motion. The EU will accept its award at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Oslo this December. (It will be on foreign soil; Norway, unlike all of its nearby neighbors, is not an EU member.)

Jagland's announcement elicited an immediate backlash, with critics piping up in unison: What, exactly, was the Nobel panel thinking?

First of all, they charge, the EU isn’t a person. It’s 27 countries! More to the point, they all happen to be going through some rather serious turmoil right now. Protests are a daily occurrence, and they are anything but peaceful. The shared economy is in shambles, and things are not looking to improve in the near future.

There’s some speculation that the Nobel committee just couldn’t find anyone deserving of the prize and passed it along to the EU with a collective shrug of the shoulders.

But that can’t be the case. In those trying times when no entity on earth is worthy of a prize for peace, it simply goes un-awarded. That happened for the first time in 1914 (no surprise there) and most recently in 1972, with 17 more Nobel-less years in between.

On the other hand, sometimes the world is so full of peace and goodwill -- apparently -- that multiple people win. Take women’s rights pioneers Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Leymah Gbowee and Tawakel Karman, who shared the prize last year.

Of course, a stubborn critic might point out that a three-person prize is one thing, but awarding an organization -- one that includes 500 million inhabitants and thousands of leading officials -- is quite another.

But actually, this is not without precedent. Several organizations have won Nobel Peace Prizes -- most recently, in 2007, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change had that honor. This esteemed body, a member of the United Nations, shared the prize with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore. Both were lauded for advancing knowledge about global climate change.

Other non-human winners include the Grameen Bank, a micro-creditor in Bangladesh; the International Atomic Energy Agency, for its work on nuclear non-proliferation; and Médecins Sans Frontières, the roving medic organization also known as Doctors Without Borders.

Fair enough -- but there are other issues. Who takes the monetary reward of US$1.2 million? (A lovely gesture, but not near enough to make a difference in, say, Greece.) Who accepts the medallion? (Maybe it would look good on German Chancellor Angela Merkel?) And who will give the acceptance speech on the royal blue stage in Oslo? (So many languages to choose from!)

Those details aren’t finalized yet, but they will be. The EU is suggesting that its Commission President, José Manuel Barroso, along with its lesser-known President, Herman Van Rompuy, travel together to accept the prize on behalf of the organization. No word yet on the acceptance speech, but most winning organizations of years past have sent their presidents to the podium.

And the money? It is likely that the funds will go to a charitable cause.

So it is established: an EU win, odd though it may seem, is not a breach of protocol. That brings it all down to the heart of the matter: Does this fraught alliance of nations really deserve a prize for peace?

Some are positively up in arms over the announcement.

“Presumably this prize is for the peace and harmony on the streets of Athens and Madrid,” quipped Martin Callanan, a conservative Member of Parliament in Great Britain, according to Reuters. “The EU's policies have exacerbated the fallout of the financial crisis and led to social unrest that we haven't seen for a generation.”

He added that the prize is devalued by its recipient, just as it was in 2009, when it was given to the barely inaugurated U.S. President Barack Obama.

Another British politician, Nigel Farage, agreed. “The last attempt in Europe to impose a new flag, currency and nationality on separate states was called Yugoslavia. The EU is repeating the same tragic mistake,” he said, according to the Independent.

“Rather than bring peace and harmony, the EU will cause insurgency and violence,” he added, pointing to spiraling poverty in Greece and potential separatist clashes in Spain.

It is obvious that the EU is in dire straits at the moment. A fiscal crisis has engulfed the region since 2008, and member countries are grappling with the painful pitfalls of unity. Many unhappy Europeans -- especially those outside of Germany -- bemoan a loss of national sovereignty.

Jagland himself admitted that things are far from ideal in the EU.

“There is a great danger,” he said to the New York Times. “We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating.”

But in the view of the committee, he added, the peace prize would be a good way “to focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization.”

To better understand those aims, you’d have to look all the way back to World War II. When that bloody conflict ended in 1945, much of Europe had been reduced to rubble and tens of millions of people were dead. Though the modern incarnation of the EU was not established until the Maastricht Treaty of 1993, the organization’s roots can be traced back to a post-WWII economic coalition between former enemies France and Germany.

This institutionalized cooperation, for all its (many) faults, has heralded a unique period of relative peace in Europe.

“The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,” explained Jagland on Friday.

“The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a 70-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today, war between Germany and France is unthinkable,” he added.

There’s no telling what’s in store for the European Union’s future, but the Nobel Prize committee feels quite justified in giving the stamp of approval to its past.

Barroso, who also acknowledged the controversy inherent in the decision, accepted the nod on behalf of all 27 EU member states.

He told reporters that the award “shows that, even in this difficult time, the European Union remains an inspiration for countries and people all over the world, and that the international community needs a strong European Union.”