So the European Union has won the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s a surprise, but it is also a strong message, the kind that the Nobel Committee often like to deliver. A message that is addressed to all Europeans, from the most powerful to those worst affected by the crisis, from the most federalist to the most disappointed.

It may appear strange to honour a political body that has yet to assume its definitive form, and stranger still to do so at a time when the European project seems to have reached its limits, or even to be on the point of failure. But it is precisely for this reason that the Nobel Prize has come at the right moment. Its message is simple: Europe is peace, and this should not be forgotten in the context of our current difficulties.

In explaining its decision, the Norwegian Nobel Committee affirms: “The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe.” It further emphasises the fact that participation in the union has made war between historical enemies like Germany and France “unthinkable”, and that the progressive enlargement to include former dictatorships — both fascist and communist — has opened ”a new era in European history”.

The award is a reminder of the fundamental values that underlie the cohabitation of 500 million Europeans in a region that is nonetheless divided by different languages and cultures, as well as different — and in some cases conflicting — histories. It is a useful reminder at a time when the German Chancellor is being caricatured as Hitler, both in the streets and on the front pages of newspapers.

Even more importantly, it is a useful reminder for young generations for whom peace, which is largely abstract and taken for granted, cannot serve as an argument to defend the general orientation of the European project, or have any relevance in concrete decisions required to manage the crisis or the succession of European treaties.

As the news of the EU’s Nobel Prize has spread around the world, some commentators have waxed ironic about the joy felt by the Greeks and the Irish, who are suffering under the full impact of the austerity plans demanded by Brussels. Many more have pointed out that Europe alone was unable to prevent or resolve the war in the Balkans in the 1990s. How can we counter this argument? Europe, which was already an economic giant, but a political and military dwarf, helplessly looked on at a repeat of the worst moments of its history, which took place on its doorstep.

Since then, little progress has been made in the drive to provide the EU with the tools it needs to maintain peace: a diplomatic policy and an army worthy of the name. Member states have effectively refused to give its High Representative for Foreign Affairs the political means for coherent action. The same is true of its military force, which is the indispensable corollary of the limitations of soft power. The failed merger between the Franco-German EADS consortium and the British aerospace and armaments company BAE Systems, which would have resulted in the creation of a defence sector giant, has recently demonstrated that Europe is not ready to fully assume a role as a guardian of the peace, and, as a consequence, will remain obliged, as it always has been, to call on its American ally for help whenever peace is threatened.

This Nobel Prize is therefore a tribute, an encouragement and also a call to order. Like any laureate, the EU should show itself to be worthy. When rumours of the prizewinners’ identity first began to circulate, commentators immediately wondered who would travel to Oslo to accept the award: Commission President José Manuel Barroso? Council President Herman Van Rompuy? President Dimitris Christofias on behalf of Cyprus, which currently holds the rotating presidency of the union? Here's an opportunity to show a united front.