BRUSSELS, Belgium — Awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union has provoked joy and jeers, but also acknowledgement of the dangers posed by an economic crisis that’s placing unprecedented strains on the organization that binds together the old continent’s historic enemies.
"The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace," the Norwegian Nobel committee said on announcing the award Friday.
It comes when European unity is facing perhaps its greatest threat since the EU's forerunner, the European Economic Community, was founded in 1957 to unite countries that had torn each other apart in world war twice during the previous half-century.
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The economic crisis has plunged much of the EU into recession and fueled deep tensions between rich northern countries led by Germany and indebted southerners such as Greece and Spain.
As governments wrangle over bailout terms, northern sneers about lazy southerners have become common, matched by caricatures of heartless, overbearing Germans unwilling to show solidarity with neighbors in trouble. When German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited Athens this week, protesters waved Nazi flags.
Nationalist parties opposed to the EU have emerged as major political players in countries from Greece to Finland and the Netherlands. German newspapers have called for Greece to be kicked out of the euro zone, or for Germany itself to march out.
In Britain, the Conservative prime minister is mulling calls from within his party for a referendum on leaving the EU.
Even the old states of Europe are threatened with dismemberment as separatism grows in Scotland, Catalonia, Flanders and other regions angry at seeing their taxes going elsewhere.
The day before the surprise Nobel announcement, fears about the new divisions inflamed by the crisis loomed over a high-level Brussels conference called "State of Europe."
"We have to get rid of what I call old demons of Europe," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso told the conference.
"We have had division between East and West, now I think there is a risk of having a consolidation of division between North and South to a large extent based on prejudices, to a large extent made by myths and stereotypes."
Optimists hope the Nobel award will provide the wake-up call Europe needs by reminding jaded politicians and citizens about the dangers of division and the achievements of the past six decades, during which former deadly foes came together in unprecedented unity and cooperation.
"One only has to travel to Asia to understand the EU's value," Charles Grant, director of London’s Center for European Reform, told the BBC.
"In South and East Asia, several territorial disputes could easily erupt into war,” he said. “Many Asians wish they had strong multilateral bodies like the EU, or NATO, that make war among their members inconceivable."
In Berlin, Merkel said the Nobel committee’s "wonderful decision" would be an "incentive and an obligation" for her on a personal level. "We must work tirelessly and continue to strive for peace, democracy and freedom," she said.
French President Francois Hollande said every European should feel "pride" in the award. He, too, added that the prize came with a "still greater responsibility for Europe to preserve its unity, its capacity to promote growth and jobs, and the solidarity that it must show toward its members."
The Nobel Committee singled out the role the EU played in bringing together France and Germany, which were among the EEC’s six original members along with Italy, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.
It also highlighted the development of democracy in countries emerging from dictatorship, such as Greece, Spain and Portugal, which joined the 1980s, and the ten former communist states that became members in 2004 and 2007.
"The division between East and West has to a large extent been brought to an end; democracy has been strengthened; many ethnically based national conflicts have been settled," the announcement said.
For all its current troubles, the EU remains an attractive club.
Croatia, set to join next year, heads a line of Balkan nations hoping for membership. Turkey and Iceland are candidates. Ukraine and Georgia have expressed interest in joining. Regional groupings from Mercosur in South America to the Gulf Cooperation Council and ASEAN in Southeast Asia look to the EU for inspiration.
The union forms the world's largest economy, worth $17 trillion in 2011. It's the United State's main trading partner, with two-way exchanges totaling $636 billion. And the EU and its 27 member states provide over half the world's development aid, just short of $70 billion in 2011.
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"The EU has been above all else one of the greatest conflict resolution mechanisms ever devised," said the International Crisis Group, which monitors conflict around the world. "We hope that the EU will continue to expand that zone of stability to its neighbors and also bring the message everywhere that deep regional integration and the strengthening of societies built upon the rule of law can be a tremendous force for peace and stability."
Not everyone agrees.
British euro-skeptics lost no time ridiculing the decision. "The Nobel committee is a little late for an April Fools joke," fumed Marin Callanan, leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament.
"What a lot of tossers," said Sue Cameron, a columnist for the Daily Telegraph newspaper, using a popular British expletive to describe the Nobel committee during a BBC TV debate.
There was anger in Greece, too. "It mocks us and what we are going through right now," Christoula Panagiotidi, a recently unemployed hairdresser in Athens was quoted as telling the Ekathimerini newspaper about the crippling effects of internationally imposed austerity cuts. "All it will do will infuriate people here."