"Annual review of human rights in the EU is imperative"
The Norwegian Nobel Committee will today award the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU for its contribution to peace and reconciliation in Europe. Minister for EU Affairs Birgitta Ohlsson welcomes the prize but adds that we must not take peace and democracy in Europe for granted.
"My most important political goal as Minister for EU Affairs is to introduce an annual review of EU Member States' compliance with human rights," she says.
In recent years, the EU has largely focused on the monetary union, especially in connection with the economic crisis that many European countries are struggling with. This is despite the fact that the main reason for creating the European Union was to preserve peace, as expressed for example in the Schuman Declaration of 1950.
The decision to award this year's Nobel Peace Prize to the EU has also met with criticism from those who believe that most of the EU's peace efforts were made several decades ago. But according to Ms Ohlsson, to claim that the EU does not deserve the prize is to fly in the face of history.
"The EU is perhaps history's most successful peace and democracy project. When I was born, in 1975, less than half of the EU's current Member States were democracies, but now all of them are. The next challenge facing the EU is the road to peace and democracy that the Balkan countries are embarking on," she says.
However, during the war in the Balkans 20 years ago, many accused the EU (then the EC) of inaction. What do you think the EU should do to prevent something similar from happening again?
"In the Balkan wars, the EU did far too little far too late, but it is also a lesson about what we can do in the future to get it right. The events of that time are still an open wound, and the best way to heal the wound is to allow these countries to join the EU once they meet the requirements.
"I was in Serbia and Montenegro in the autumn, and every single person I met who is involved in democracy and human rights work has placed EU membership at the top of their wish list. The requirements and rules of membership help to push countries in the right direction in these areas."
But some countries that want to join the EU are criticised for not respecting the rights of minorities. One example is Turkey with regard to the Kurds. What can the EU do there?
"We need carrots as well as sticks. As for Turkey, where there is institutionalised oppression of minorities such as Kurds, perhaps the lure of EU membership - and what it means in terms of the single market, free movement and openness - is the most effective way to bring about positive change."
"We need an annual review of human rights in the EU"
Although Ms Ohlsson sees EU membership as an effective way to demand democratisation, she feels it is a problem that it is difficult to make demands on countries that are already members but still lack respect for human rights. An example of this is antisemitism and antiziganism in countries such as Hungary.
"My most important task as Minister for EU Affairs, therefore, is to ensure that we introduce an annual review of EU Member States' compliance with human rights," she says. "To live up to the Nobel Peace Prize and safeguard our credibility when we demand democratisation of other countries, we have to live up to our ideals at home."
And if we look beyond the EU and EU neighbourhood countries, how do you think the EU can best promote peace and democracy in the rest of the world?
"The EU consists of 27 countries and these countries can send a strong message if they speak with one voice. The problem is that they rarely do so, even if we are now building up the European External Action Service (EEAS) precisely to improve this.
"As for the conflict between Israel and Palestine, for example, I really hope that the EU will be one of the important parties when it is time to sit at the negotiating table again. However, when major humanitarian disasters occur, the EU is not to take over the global role of the UN, but instead complement it and work side by side with it."