The annual Charlemagne Prize has been to Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament. The prize recognizes contributions toward European unification.
At a ceremony in the Germany city of Aachen on Thursday, European Parliament President Martin Schulz was presented with the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen. The prize is awarded for "work done in the service of European unification," according to the award's website.
The prize's board of directors announced Schulz as the winner in December, saying he was an "outstanding mentor of a united Europe who has earned important and lasting merits for his efforts towards a strengthening of parliament, parliamentarianism, and democratic legitimation in the EU."
German President Joachim Gauck, French President Francois Hollande, Jordan's King Abdullah II and other European and German dignitaries were on hand for the ceremony in the city on the German border with the Netherlands.
In his keynote address, Gauck began on "a dark note," as he put it, quoting Schulz himself: "For the first time in the post-World War II period, the failure of the European Union is a realistic scenario."
Gauck was referring to problems facing Europe, from the conflict in Ukraine to the divisive, nationalist tendencies in countries such as Greece.
He said these conflicts showed that many Europeans harbored doubts about the European Union, looking instead to go it alone as nation states in setting policies and crafting foreign relationships.
Gauck said Schulz was a man who feared the failure of the European Union, and a man who saw the need to restore trust in the European Union, implying that this was his biggest contribution to Europe.
After receiving the prize, Schulz's comments echoed the sentiment of Gauck's speech.
He said distrust was growing, unleashing influences that wanted to set Europe back.
"For many Europeans, the EU is an abstract institution, far from their daily lives," Schulz said, viewing it as "Spaceship Brussels."
In light of the lack of trust, Schulz asked "Do we give up on the EU, or do we make it more understandable and better equipped?"
"I'm for making it more understandable. That's why I wanted to become President of the European Parliament – to open the doors and the windows of the EU so people can look inside."
A local winner
Schulz is German and originally from the town of Würselen, near Aachen in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia. After stints in local politics in Würselen and the district of Aachen, he became a member of the European Parliament in 1994. The Social Democrat is serving his second consecutive stint as president of the European Parliament, a role he first assumed in January 2012.
He said as a child, when his police officer father would be called to work the security detail of the Charlemagne Prize ceremony, he never could have imagined that he himself would ever be honored with the award.
"I am deeply moved, humbled and a little proud to receive this prize of this region," Schulz said.