Granting the prize to Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu or Aung San Suu Kyi helped to drive enormous, long-term human rights changes in their respective countries.
It gave those brave human rights defenders international recognition and empowered them to continue their human rights struggle.
For the EU it is a recognition of the contribution of a multi-nation institution to peace and human rights. Not entirely unjustified from a historic point of view.
The EU has made war between member states unthinkable and given Europe’s history this is no small contribution.
This contribution rests mainly in making respect for human rights and the rule of law its basic values, establishing them in non-negotiable principles - though not always succeeding in enforcing them.
Through its accession process as well as through its foreign policy the EU has contributed to changes in the wider region and indeed in the world.
But its leaders would be unwise to see the Nobel Peace prize as anything amounting to a final verdict on its record - for there is much room for improvement within EU borders and overseas.
It should instead take the acknowledgement as a reminder - re-enforcing what it ought to stand for, acknowledging itself where the weaknesses were and what the future has to hold.
Because don’t forget when war erupted in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s the European Community was exposed to a major test of its commitment to peace and human rights – and many felt its response was slow and inadequate.
It came under fire for not taking strong enough political action to prevent the looming crisis and responded slowly and inadequately while it was happening.
In the often uneasy peace that followed the Dayton agreement in 1995 and, when war came to an end in Kosovo in 1999, the EU’s presence in the former Yugoslavia did not push justice for those responsible for atrocities to the top of the agenda.
When the European Commission gave a green light in 2011 for the accession of Croatia to the EU, the country still had about 700 unresolved war crimes cases, a backlog which, given the slow speed with which crimes are dealt with in Croatia, would take another 30 years to address.
The accession process is a major element in even putting this issue on the agenda, but sadly few steps have been undertaken by the Croatian authorities to address the issue properly.
Can the EU really afford to proceed with accession of a country that has made so little progress on war crimes?
Similarly in Kosovo, the EU police and justice mission (EULEX) - operational since December 2008 - has made little progress in bringing to justice to those ethnic Albanians believed responsible for war crimes which took place during the 1998-1999 war or in its aftermath.
A Brussels based Special Investigative Task Force, established in 2011, has so far failed to report any progress in investigations into the abduction of Kosovo Serbs, subsequently transferred to Albania, where they were allegedly tortured and murdered, and in some cases, their organs removed for trafficking.
In June 2012 the EU adopted an impressive new human rights policy for its external relations, including the appointment of a new EU HR Special Representative.
One of the major features of this new policy is mainstreaming human rights into all the EU’s engagement with third countries. Addressing its inconsistencies is indeed a major task befitting a Nobel prize laureate.
The EU’s response to events in Andizhan in Uzbekistan seven years ago was similarly short-sighted.
Security forces had killed hundreds of mainly peaceful demonstrators, including women and children.
Within six months the EU had condemned the killings, called for an independent international investigation into the Andizhan events and imposed limited sanctions on Uzbekistan. But then it seems to have gradually rowed back from that position.
Demands that Uzbekistan comply with its international human rights obligations were toned down, eventually all sanctions were lifted and the call for an independent international investigation into the Andizhan killings was dropped.
Amnesty International has repeatedly told the EU of continuing human rights violations in Uzbekistan, which include arbitrary arrest, incommunicado detention, torture and unfair trials of regime critics.
The EU too readily accepts Tashkent’s version of events and turns a blind eye to these violations. It is hard to escape the conclusion that the EU has reneged on its human rights commitments for the sake of its trade interests, particularly those of a specific member state of the EU.
The problems are not just external coherence but also internal focus on human rights violations and the nexus between the external and internal policies.
The armed conflict in Syria has killed over 23,000 people and forced hundreds of thoustands to flee their homes. The EU is strongly condeming the large-scale human rights, and humanitarian law violations in Syria, beyond providing desperately needed funds. Yet, it shirks away as usual from looking at what it ought to do about the crisis in Syria within its own borders.
The UN estimates that 1.2 million people are displaced inside Syria. Turkey, Jordan, Iraq and Lebanon, Syria’s neighbours, have allowed large numbers of arrivals to enter and remain on their territories.
Around 15,000 Syrians have submitted asylum claims within the EU since the beginning of 2011 but in some EU countries Syrian asylum-seekers experience serious difficulties in accessing the asylum system.
There are alarming reports of of Syrians being pushed back at external EU borders. A fate they share with many refugees and migrants, in fact, the Nobel Peace Prize wining EU has to look urgently at its violations of refugee and migrants rights through its border defence, treatment of refugees and failure of burden sharing.
The EU won the prize on its achievement of peace within its borders and respect for human rights. No doubt both are a reality. However, it is also not the time to bask in this glory since the last few years have shown a decline in attention to human rights violations and desperate lack of political will to devise an internal EU human rights mechanism.
Despite its Charter of Fundamental Rights and despite its strong anti-discrimination legislation discrimination against Roma is at its peak in several countries – the problem to which the EU as an instutution still has not responded adequately.
Feeble action on addressing discrimination of Muslims and other minorities puts the EU in an embarrassing position politically.
And then there is the treatment of sexual minorities in some of the newer EU member states.
The hope that a Nobel Peace Prize brings today is that the EU will be able to look sincerely on what it got the prize for and what that brings in obligation to make another effort on its human rights record and foreign policy.
If it does, it will be able to address some of the fundamental challenges it faces and stand proudly in the same row as champions of human rights such as Martin Luther King, Desmond Tutu and Aung San Suu Kyi.