The European Coal and Steel Community and the other elements from which the EU springs were explicitly intended to make war between France and Germany ‘not merely unthinkable, but materially impossible’. That aim has been achieved, though America and Nato also played their part. But what contribution has the EU made to peacemaking elsewhere? I restrict my thoughts here to three conflicts in which I have been personally involved as a diplomat: Palestine, Cyprus and Northern Ireland.

In 1980, just before I became directly involved with Palestine in the FCO, the nine-member European Economic Community issued the Venice Declaration, which broke new ground by recognising that the Palestinian people had the right to self-determination, in effect proposing a ‘land for peace’ deal which later became the basis of the two-state solution, still the preferred option of the international community. This was a bold attempt by Europe to fill the gap created by the failure of the United States to take a balanced position between Israel and the Arabs. I believe it owed a lot to Lord Carrington, described by Reagan’s secretary of state Alexander Haig as a ‘duplicitous bastard’ because he did not always fall in with American policy.

Unfortunately it remains unique. I remember in about 1983 being invited to sign up to a paper drafted by my colleagues in the FCO who dealt with Europe which argued that only America had leverage on Israel, not Europe. When I pointed out that Europeans ate Israeli grapefruit but Americans did not I was told that it would be quite impossible to orient community trade policy to the solution of political problems. In other words, Europeans did not necessarily lack the means but we lacked the will.

The EU is a member of the Quartet (along with the US, UN and Russia) set up in 2002 to mediate the Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’. But America has remained firmly in the driving seat, and the Quartet has, in the uncharacteristically pithy words of the secretary general of the Arab League, proved to be a ‘Quartet sans trio’. As one analyst put it, ‘for the US... the Quartet was paradoxically a useful means to give the impression that it was engaging in the peace process without substantively committing to it.’ The peace process itself has been in a vegetative state for some years. So no prizes there.

By the time Cyprus and the EU began to eye one another, the Cyprus problem had gone into the deep freeze. In 1974, just after I finished a four-year stint in Nicosia, the Greek government attempted to mount a coup against the government of President Makarios. Turkey invaded and the island was divided in two. Negotiations for a political solution did not break down, but were stuck. In 1990 Cyprus applied for full European membership, and serious negotiations began in 1993. This looked like a game-changer. All the EU had to do was to say it could only join as a united island. But Greece was a tireless advocate for admitting Cyprus in its existing form: a Greek Cypriot government universally acknowledged and recognised but controlling only part of the island in the interests of only one of the two communities. And that’s the form in which it was admitted in 2004.

I was the British ambassador in Athens during some of the negotiations that led to Cyprus joining the EU. They were mainly about economics and trade, although there was more than a nod in the direction of democracy and human rights. But the EU was constitutionally disinclined and ill-adapted to deal with a problem that was essentially political. The EU had a real chance to solve one of the most gristly problems on the international agenda, and muffed it.

When I worked in the Northern Ireland Office in Belfast at the end of the 1980s, one of my jobs, given my Foreign Office background, was bear-leading foreign visitors, mostly diplomats and ministers from friendly countries with a benign interest in the problem. ‘Now that Britain and Ireland are in Europe,’ they often said, ‘surely most of these problems are out of date?’ I would introduce them to a few moderate representatives of the Unionist and Nationalist communities, who quickly put them right. Again, the European machinery was not adjusted to deal with the political problems we faced.

But there is more to it than that. Before Britain and Ireland both joined the EEC in 1973, I believe that there had never been a meeting between the British prime minister and the taoiseach. We had embassies, but even ministerial contacts were sparse, given the intimate relations between the two countries and populations.

The first meeting of prime ministers may have been in Paris in 1974 between Harold Wilson and Liam Cosgrave. From then on there were regular meetings of the European Council, so when Margaret Thatcher became prime minister five years later, meetings with the taoiseach were already routine. This was part of the background to the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, in which she and Garret FitzGerald played the lead roles. If they had not met repeatedly in Brussels I doubt it would have happened.

A couple of years after the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed I was part of the joint secretariat of the permanent conference set up under the agreement, along with an Irish ambassador. The British and Irish governments were committed to finding a solution to the problem. But I saw how hard it was for British politicians, particularly those steeped in the Unionist tradition, to accept that Dublin had a legitimate interest in some of the things that were going on in Northern Ireland. When a well-known nationalist was shot as he walked across the border, I found that getting approval from ministers for the slightest degree of co-operation with the Irish authorities was like pulling teeth. Our Irish colleagues found it equally difficult to accept British authority anywhere in the island of Ireland. But for the commitment of Margaret Thatcher and Garret FitzGerald – and later Charles Haughey – the whole train might have come off the rails.

The Anglo-Irish Agreement, although it could be considered in the end to have failed, was the foundation on which John Major and Tony Blair later constructed peace in Northern Ireland. I don't think it goes far towards justifying the EU prize, but maybe one of the unsung benefits of the EU is the establishment of working relationships between political leaders who might otherwise be scarcely on speaking terms.