10 Dec 2012

If Norway likes the EU so much, why doesn’t it live there?

The head of the Norwegian Nobel peace prize committee hasn’t really answered that question. But Thorbjorn Jagland’s praised the EU’s contribution to human rights, peace and democracy anyway. You feel here in Oslo that the EU, in the midst of a pretty horrendous economic crisis, has grabbed this moment with both hands.

The three presidents – presidents of the commission, the European Council and the parliament – look like the three tenors on the platform, grinning from ear to ear.

Just before the three presidents picked up the ultimate international back-slap, there was musical entertainment from a folk combo singing “Europe, in you there is something that is cheering me up” with percussion provided by a man slapping his face and thighs.

One of those applauding that unlikely combo was Mario Monti. His resignation as Italian PM potentially casts another shadow over the eurozone’s attempts to save itself and is a reminder of how shocks could still throw the relative mid-crisis calm back into full-scale tailspin crisis mode.

When David Cameron was asked in October who should pick up the Nobel peace prize on behalf of the EU, he said he certainly wasn’t going and schoolchildren should go. In the end he sent Nick Clegg – not a joke at his expense, the DPM told me in Oslo.

Nick Clegg arrives here just as his coalition partner is starting work in earnest on a long-promised speech about how he sees Europe. In fact, this speech was originally promised for this January. It’s approaching its first anniversary and it hasn’t even been given.

Why the delay? It is momentous “big leap” stuff. David Cameron will say he is demanding repatriated powers for a redesigned UK membership which would then be put to the British people in a referendum.

But his critics, including Nick Clegg and Tony Blair, say he won’t get major powers back so the whole plan could collapse into a referendum on unreformed membership, something polls suggest is getting more and more unpopular with UK voters.

Anyway this day of ceremony and eulogies has given EU leaders a rare happy occasion to celebrate the institution’s early inspiration and achievements. In the margins, there are much more prosaic cash-focused bilaterals aimed at trying to sort out this week’s EU summit on banking union and the deals to be brokered still on the EU budget. EU countries are inter-twining these negotiations.

There may be little real progress this week in Brussels on banking – that’s certainly the UK’s expectation. But the jaw-jaw carries on… The message in Oslo ringing out from the speeches is that it’s mind-numbing, often raucous, regularly mistaken – but so much better than war.

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