10/31/2012 01:05 pm ET Updated Dec 31, 2012

European Union's Nobel Prize

When it was announced that this year's Nobel Peace Prize would be given to the European Union, I was thrilled.

There were others who were less excited, even skeptical and cynical.

After all, these doubters said, why honor the EU when it is enveloped in such immense economic challenges?

Others questioned why, if the Norwegian committee was so enamored by the European Union, is it that Norway has consistently rejected joining, preferring to go its own way unencumbered by a Brussels-based bureaucracy?

And there were those who noted it could have been still worse -- the EU might have received the Nobel Prize for Economics instead!

But the award committee took a longer view, and so do I. It dates back more than 60 years to the period just after the Second World War.

In 1946, Winston Churchill, in a speech in Zurich, spoke of the need to "recreate the European family" and allow it to "dwell in peace, in safety and in freedom." "The first step," he proposed, "must be a partnership between France and Germany."

Taking up the theme, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman and his key aide, Jean Monnet, declared: "The coming together of the nations of Europe requires the elimination of the age-old opposition of France and Germany."

And thus the process of European integration began, recognizing that forging economic interdependence, first through coal and steel, then broadening the agenda, would help buttress the political evolution from war to peace.

This visionary effort, doubted by some from the start, has achieved remarkable results.

It is a reminder of two elements of political leadership so necessary at any stage in history -- the ability to look beyond the issues du jour and visualize a brighter tomorrow, and the capacity to turn an idea into reality.

Consider the three main accomplishments of the EU to date.

First, the goal of Churchill, Schuman and Monnet has been achieved. War between France and Germany is unthinkable, against the backdrop of three devastating conflicts between 1870 and 1945. Indeed, the border between the two, once defined by the French-built Maginot Line to try to protect against German invasion, is wide open and unpatrolled.

Second, Greece, Portugal and Spain shed their authoritarian regimes and, lured by the appeal of European integration and its benefits joined the union, further entrenching democracy and peace in an expanding zone.

And third, ten post-communist societies, from the Baltic states in the north to Bulgaria in the south, moved as quickly as they could to anchor themselves in the EU, helping to create a 27-nation region where citizens no longer fear war or fight endlessly over such once disputed territories as Alsace-Lorraine and Transylvania.

There is a fourth prospect that looms just ahead -- an end to the centuries-old conflicts that made the Balkans synonymous with irreconcilable differences. Croatia will join the EU next year, and Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are future prospects. But, for instance, Macedonia knows that it will not enter unless it resolves its differences with EU members Bulgaria and Greece, just as Turkey has no chance unless, at a minimum, it finds an acceptable solution with EU member Cyprus to the island nation's current division.

So, I happen to believe that the Nobel Prize could not have been better timed. It is a necessary reminder of what the EU is really all about. A continent once ravaged by one war after another, and whose soil has been soaked with the blood of countless millions who were killed because of racial theories, religious disputes, territorial claims, leaders' egomania, economics and more, no longer loses sleep fearing a new outbreak of cross-border violence.

While the EU is understandably preoccupied today with internal challenges, longer term, it does have a potentially critical role to play on a fifth frontier -- the Middle East. Specifically, the EU should devote more attention to how it can help ensure a successful peace process between Israel and the Arab world, drawing on its own lessons of conflict resolution.

Sound unrealistic or naïve? Perhaps, but no more so than Churchill, Schuman and Monnet did when they envisioned a different world over 60 years ago.

This piece originally appeared in Spanish in El Pais, Spain's largest-circulation daily newspaper.