In the grey post-war days, the hearts of many were still simmering with mourning and resentment. So what a bold bet it was, for Europe's Founders, to say, yes, we can break this endless cycle of violence, we can stop the logic of vengeance and build a brighter future, together.
Of course, peace might have come to Europe without the Union. Maybe. But it would never have been of the same quality. A lasting peace, not a frosty cease-fire.
Reconciliation is what makes this peace so special. It goes beyond forgiving and forgetting, or simply turning the page. Adenauer and De Gaulle in the Cathedral of Reims: it is one of those stirring images that healed post-war Europe. Other images too come to mind. Six States assembled to open a new future in Rome. Willy Brandt kneeling down in Warsaw. The dockers of Gdansk, gathering in protest. Mitterrand and Kohl hand in hand. Rostropovich playing Bach at the fallen Wall in Berlin.
But symbolic gestures alone cannot cement peace. This is where the European Union's "secret weapon" comes into play: an unrivalled way of binding our interests so tightly that war becomes materially impossible. Through constant negotiations, on ever more topics, between ever more countries.
Admittedly, some aspects can be puzzling. Ministers from landlocked countries passionately discussing fish-quota. Europarlementarians from Scandinavia debating the price of olive oil. The Union has perfected the art of compromise. No drama of victory or defeat, but ensuring all countries emerge victorious from talks.
It worked. Peace is now self-evident. War has become inconceivable. Yet 'inconceivable' does not mean 'impossible'. And that is why we are in Oslo today. Europe must keep its promise of peace. But it can no longer rely on this promise to inspire citizens.
This couldn't be more clear than it is today, when we are hit by the worst economic crisis in two generations, causing great hardship among our people, and putting the political bonds of our Union to the test.
Parents struggling to make ends meet, workers recently laid off, students who fear that, however hard they try, they won't get that first job: when they think about Europe, peace is not the first thing that comes to mind…
We are working hard to overcome the difficulties, to restore growth and jobs. We are confident we will succeed.
The European Union is not only about peace among nations. As a political project it incarnates – in Spinoza’s definition of peace – "a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice".
Other historic moments underlined this. The people of Portugal, Spain and Greece celebrating the democratic revolution and freedom. This same joy was experienced later in Central and Eastern Europe and in the Baltic States.
The quest for freedom and democracy made possible the reunification of the continent. The European Union has become our common house. The "homeland of our homelands", as Vaclav Havel called it.
The founding fathers understood that to guarantee peace in the 20th century nations needed to think beyond the nation-state. The uniqueness of the European project is to have combined the legitimacy of democratic States with the legitimacy of supranational institutions that protect the general European interest.
Our quest for European unity is not an end in itself, but a means to higher ends. It attests to the quest for a cosmopolitan order. Despite its imperfections, the European Union is a powerful inspiration for many around the world. Beyond our nation, beyond our continent, we are all part of one mankind.
The concrete engagement of the European Union in the world is marked by our continent's tragic experience of extreme nationalism, wars and the absolute evil of the Shoah. It is inspired by our desire to avoid the same mistakes being made again.
That is the foundation of our multilateral approach and our relations with international partners; defining our stance against the death penalty and our support for international justice; our leadership in the fight against climate change and for food and energy security, and our policies on disarmament and against nuclear proliferation.
As a continent that went from devastation to become one of the world's strongest economies, we have a special responsibility to millions of people in need. As a community of nations that has fought totalitarianism, we will always stand by those who are in pursuit of peace and justice, democracy and human dignity. Our thoughts go to the human rights' defenders all over the world who put their lives at risk to defend the values that we cherish. No prison wall can silence their voice.
As a Union built on the founding value of equality between women and men, we are committed to protecting women's rights all over the world. We cherish the fundamental rights of the most vulnerable: the children of this world.
The "pacification of Europe" was at the heart of Alfred Nobel's concerns. In an early version of his will, he even equated it to international peace. Over the past sixty years, the European Union has shown that it is possible for peoples and nations to come together across borders.
Our continent, risen from the ashes after 1945 and united in 1989, has a great capacity to reinvent itself. It is to the next generations to take this common adventure further. We hope they will seize this responsibility with pride. And that they will be able to say, as we in Oslo: I am proud to be European.
This is an abridged version of the Nobel Lecture that Herman Van Rompuy and José Manuel Durão Barroso, Presidents of the European Council and the European Commission, delivered in Oslo on behalf of the European Union at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony.