Oslo, Norway • For fostering peace on a continent ravaged by war, the European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday. The Norwegian prize jury urged all Europeans to remember those efforts as they tackle the debt crisis tearing at the 27-nation bloc.
The award was hailed at EU headquarters in Brussels and by pro-EU government leaders across the continent but derided by "euroskeptics" who consider the EU an elitist superstate that strips citizens of their rights and erodes national identities.
The announcement was met with mixed reactions in debt-ridden countries like Spain and Greece, where many blame Germany and other northern EU neighbors for the painful austerity measures like higher taxes and job cuts they have endured to salvage their floundering economies.
"The peace prize?" said Giorgos Dertilis, who works at an insurance company in Athens. "The way things are going, what will happen in the immediate future? Peace is the one thing we might not have."
The Norwegian Nobel Committee honored the EU for promoting "peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights" in Europe for six decades following the tremendous devastation of World War II.
The EU grew out of the conviction that ever-closer economic ties would make sure that century-old enemies like Germany and France never turned on each other again. The bloc is 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 austerity measures.
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, which opponents brand as neo-Nazi.
"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.
He said that Europeans should do everything they can to safeguard their unity, "not let it disintegrate and let the extremism and nationalism grow again, because we know what catastrophes that all this leads to."
"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," he said.
Europe is now stuck in a three-year financial crisis caused by too much government debt. To combat this, governments across the region have imposed harsh tax and spending measures to bring their deficits under control. However a fall in government spending has had a damping effect on Europe's economy in the second quarter of this year, the EU's gross domestic product shrank 0.2 percent compared to the previous quarter. A wide variety of indicators are pointing to a further slump in the third quarter.
The austerity measures have also hit jobs the EU's unemployment rate is currently 10.5 percent. But some countries such as Spain and Greece have rates as high as 25 percent. In Spain, every other person under 25 is unemployed.
The region is the U.S.'s largest export customer and any fall-off in demand will hurt U.S. businesses as well as President Barack Obama's election prospects.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the Nobel committee had made a "wonderful decision," and linked it to attempts to salvage the euro even though the judges didn't mention those efforts specifically.
"I often say the euro is more than only a currency. We shouldn't forget this in these weeks and months in which we work for the strengthening of the euro," Merkel told reporters in Berlin. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso welcomed the award as a "great honor" for all Europeans.
Others ridiculed the decision, as reactions to the $1.2 million award crackled over social media.