Notebook

October 16, 2012 4:54 pm

Peace prize sets off an unseemly scuffle

Who will accept the award – and who will deliver the Nobel lecture, asks Peter Spiegel

No sooner had the EU been awarded its Nobel Peace Prize on Friday than Brussels descended into what it does best: an internecine fight over institutional prerogatives.

This scrap may be less consequential than who controls national budget policies. But for a town filled with politicians obsessed with their relative standing, it promises to be no less hard-fought: who will go to Oslo in December to accept the prize?

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The first salvo was fired from an unexpected front. Half an hour after the award was announced, Martin Schulz, president of the European parliament, put out a statement saying he, “along with the other EU institutions”, looked forward to receiving the award.

That set off the Brussels circular firing squad, with multiple officials offering their view as to who should travel to Norway and how to spend the nearly €1m in prize money. Cecilia Malmström, the EU home affairs commissioner, even suggested sending 27 children, one for every country in the EU.

“When the US landed a man on the moon, they had a big celebration,” groused one senior EU official. “If we Europeans had done it, we’d start complaining: why didn’t we go to Mars instead?”

Despite the Schulz parry, the real question gripping Brussels is which of the EU’s other two presidents – the European Commission’s José Manuel Barroso or the European Council’s Herman Van Rompuy – will be in the Oslo spotlight.

Though the Nobel committee has invited EU “representatives”, tradition holds that only one recipient from an international organisation delivers the ceremony's high-profile Nobel lecture. When the UN won the award in 2001, both Kofi Annan, the secretary-general, and Han Seung-soo, president of the UN general assembly, accepted the award. But only Mr Annan spoke.

According to senior EU officials, the issue has risen to the highest levels of the Brussels eurocracy. At their regular Monday morning breakfast, Mr Barroso and Mr Van Rompuy agreed both of them should attend. But the issue of who will speak was not decided, nor was what to do about Mr Schulz.

Geir Lundestad, secretary of the Norwegian Nobel committee, said Oslo had suggested the EU send two recipients, one to accept the award and the other to give the lecture. Both could then sit on stage through the ceremony. “This would be the most elegant way,” Mr Lundestad said.

Decision time again

This week’s EU summit is also expected to focus on Brussels institutions, namely the future structure of the eurozone.

A report by Mr Van Rompuy on the topic will be debated but the real meat will be an effort to bring clarity to an issue EU leaders have spent the past three months muddying: who will fund the next round of eurozone bank bailouts?

The last time eurozone leaders gathered, they agreed to shift the burden from national governments to their new €500bn rescue fund – a “game changer”, since it would no longer saddle Spanish and Irish exchequers with the cost, wiping away chunks of their sovereign debt.

But last month German, Dutch and Finnish finance ministers said “legacy assets” would not be included, calling the whole scheme into question. As an EU official noted, what’s the point if the bad bank loans crippling the eurozone aren’t part of the deal? Getting EU leaders to decide on what they decided in June could become the most important outcome. Until they’re forced to decide on it again.

Tartan invasion

The streets of Brussels have been filled with men in kilts. Although the likely attraction was the World Cup qualifier between Belgium and Scotland, the Tartan Army may have considered a stop to discuss future Scottish EU membership.

The prospect of Scottish independence, hot on the heels of Flemish nationalists’ huge gains in Sunday’s local elections in northern Belgium, has focused minds.

Last month, when separatists took to Barcelona’s streets, a commission spokesman suggested Catalonia would have to reapply to the EU if it seceded from Spain. But on Tuesday, commission officials said they would offer a legal opinion on the topic later. If requested. It seemed to be a change in policy but officials quietly acknowledged they just didn’t want EU membership to become a Scottish political football.

peter.spiegel@ft.com

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