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Oslo (AFP) Dec 09, 2012
While facing more and more critics within its own borders, the European Union on Monday ironically collects one of the world's top honours, the Nobel Peace Prize, in a country stubbornly refusing to join its ranks.
Norway is a tranquil, wealthy nation thanks to its abundant oil and gas reserves, the EU a 27-nation political union 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.
"No peace prize for our time," said one of the banners waved by the several hundred Norwegians who turned out for a candle-light protest in the snowy streets of Oslo in protest against the decision to hand the award to the EU.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee's decision to honour the bloc, announced in October, has renewed an 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 opposes.
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, as many were quick to confuse the two issues.
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.
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 the notion of demilitarisation, a crisis marked by "riots, 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 eurozone and outside the eurozone, and so on," said the head of the group, Heming Olaussen.
"This prize shouldn't be seen as part of the Norwegian debate on whether we should or not join the EU," Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said Sunday.
But European Commission president Jose-Manuel Barroso, arriving in Oslo ahead of the awards ceremony Monday, told journalists the fact that the prize came from Norway gave it "even bigger value".
"Norway has given so much for peace that we are really proud and humbled that this distinction came from Norway," he added.
Political scientist Bernt Aardal told AFP that "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.
Realising that it was fighting a losing battle, the Movement for Europe has stopped pushing for Norwegian membership and now merely calls for closer ties.
Norway and the EU already 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 said that the ardently pro-European Jagland took advantage of the prolonged sick leave of an adamantly eurosceptic member of the committee, Aagot Valle, to get his way.
In the two days following the Nobel announcement to the EU, "No to EU" reportedly registered 500 new members, bringing its supporters to 27,000 -- including eight cabinet ministers -- a significant number in a country of five million people.
With support like that, Norway is not expected to apply to join the bloc anytime soon, regardless of whether Stoltenberg's left or the right win the next legislative elections in September 2013.
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