The Charlemagne Prize honors exceptional work performed in the service of European unity. According to its bylaws, it is given to public figures or bodies ‘distinguished by their outstanding work toward European unity or cooperation between its states.’ The contribution, as Kurt Pfeiffer emphasized, can be ‘made in the areas of literature, science, economics or politics.’
Of course, the Charlemagne Prize quickly developed into a pre-eminently political award. Accordingly, politicians dominate the long list of recipients. These are the people who most often work toward integration—and who are able to exercise a political influence.
The list of recipients clearly reflects the unification process. The founding fathers of the EC were honored, along with the important architects of today’s Union, the proponents of initial expansions, and the representatives of the democratic movement in Central and Eastern Europe.
In 1969, the prize was awarded to a European institution for the first time—the Commission of the European Community—rather than a person. In 1981, Simone Veil was the first woman to be awarded the Charlemagne Prize, and in 1982 Juan Carlos I was the first laureate to come from European royalty. The only ‘Charlemagne Prize Extraordinary’ was granted to Pope John Paul II in 2004.
On ten occasions since its inception, the prize has not been awarded. In the 1960s and ’70s in particular, the Board of Directors was unwilling to gloss over the stagnating European unification process by nominating a second-rate candidate. Still, these intentional failures to award the prize never had the same public effect and resonance as the award itself.