Yves Logghe, File, Associated Press
OSLO, Norway — The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize for fostering peace on a continent ravaged by war, yet the Norwegian prize jury warned Friday that the financial crisis challenging the bloc's unity could lead to a return to "extremism and nationalism."
The award was hailed at the EU headquarters in Brussels and by pro-EU government leaders across Europe, but derided by "euroskeptics" who consider the EU an elitist superstate that strips citizens of their rights and erodes national identities.
The EU grew out of the tremendous devastation of World War II, fueled by the conviction that ever-closer economic ties would make sure that century-old enemies never turned on each other again. It's now made up of 500 million people in 27 nations, with other nations lined up, waiting to join.
But European unity is being threatened by the debt crisis that has stirred deep tensions between north and south, caused unemployment to soar and sent hundreds of thousands of its citizens into the streets to protest tax hikes and job cuts.
The bloc's financial disarray is threatening the euro — the common currency used by 17 of its members — and even the structure of the union itself. The debt crisis is also fueling the rise of extremist movements such as Golden Dawn in Greece. The party, which opponents brand as neo-Nazi, has soared in popularity as Greece sinks deeper into a debt-fueled morass.
"We do not have a position on how to solve these problems, but we send a very strong message that we should keep in mind why we got this Europe after World War II," Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland told The Associated Press.
"And that we should do everything we can to safeguard it, not let it disintegrate and let the extremism and nationalism grow again, because we know what catastrophes that all this leads to," he said. "If the euro starts falling apart, then I believe that the internal market will also start falling apart. And then obviously we get new nationalism in Europe. ... This is not a good scenario."
Strong reactions to the choice for the $1.2 million award crackled Friday over social media.
"The EU is an unique project that replaced war with peace, hate with solidarity. Overwhelming emotion for awarding of (hash)Nobel prize to EU," Martin Schulz, president of the European Parliament, wrote in a tweet.
"Nobel prize for the EU. At a time Brussels and all of Europe is collapsing in misery. What next? An Oscar for Van Rompuy?" said Dutch euro-skeptic lawmaker Geert Wilders, referring to Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council.
Normally, the prize committee either honors lifetime achievement, like when longtime peace mediator Martti Ahtisaari won in 2008, or promotes a work in progress, such as the 1994 award to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, which was meant to boost Mideast peace efforts.
This year's award does both. Jagland told AP it "looks backward as well as forward" by recognizing the EU's historical role in building peace, but it does so at a time when nationalist forces that once tore the continent apart are again on the rise.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso welcomed the award as a "great honor" for all Europeans.
"It is justified recognition for a unique project that works for the benefit of its citizens and also for the benefit of the world," he said.
The idea of a united Europe began to take a more defined shape when, on May 9, 1950, French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman proposed that France and the Federal Republic of Germany pool their coal and steel resources in a new organization that other European countries could join.
Over time, the EU has grown from six countries to 27, absorbing countries in Eastern Europe as they emerged from decades under communist rule.
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