- The EU award is also likely to provoke debate in Norway where anti-EU feelings are running high
- The EU received praise in bringing democracy to Portugal, Spain and Greece after their dictatorships
- The award follows a number of recent Nobel Peace Prizes that have been shrouded in controversy
The EU won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for its role in bringing democracy to a war-ravaged continent and in reconciling France and Germany.
The timing of the award is contentious with much of the EU embroiled in the eurozone crisis and a deep debate going on over the future of Europe.
But Thorbjørn Jagland, head of the Oslo-based Nobel Committee, stressed that the award was a reminder to Europe not to throw away the fruits of 60 years of integration as social unrest increases because of the current crisis.
"We want to focus on what has been achieved in Europe in terms of peace and reconciliation...It is a message to Europe to secure what they have achieved ... and not let the continent go into disintegration again because it means the emergence of extremism and nationalism," Jagland said.
Speaking shortly after the Nobel announcement in Oslo, José Manuel Barroso, who as the European Commission president is the most recognisable face of the EU, said he was honoured by the decision and that it was a reminder that even during the current crisis, "the EU is something very precious".
"It is a great honour for all 500m citizens of Europe, for all the member states, and for all the European institutions," Mr Barroso said at a hastily-called news conference. "Through its transformative power, the EU was able, starting with six countries, to reunite almost all the European continent."
The EU award follows a number of recent Nobel Peace Prizes that have been shrouded in controversy from US President Barack Obama in 2009 to Chinese democracy activist Liu Xiaobo the following year. Norwegian business is still feeling the effects of the latter award with visas to China almost impossible to obtain.
The EU award is also likely to provoke sharp debate in Norway where anti-EU feelings are running at an all-time high with a poll last year suggesting 72 per cent of Norwegians would say no to joining the 27-country club.
Critics suggest the Norwegian committee uses the prize for private purposes or to send out political messages to the wider world rather than reward people or organisations that have helped peace. "This means that Jagland is using the Nobel Peace Prize for his own ends," lawyer and peace activist Fredrik Heffermehl told Aftenposten newspaper.
But the Norwegian committee, which hands out only the peace prize, with all other Nobel awards coming from Sweden, has discussed the possibility of the EU winning for several years. Geir Lundestad, the current secretary of the committee, said two years ago that the EU was only behind Mahatma Gandhi in terms of being overlooked for the prize.
Jagland tied the timing of the prize with worries that the process of integration in Europe could go into reverse even as the EU hopes to bring countries such as Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia into the club. He praised the EU's role in bringing democracy to Portugal, Spain and Greece after their dictatorships and pointed to the bloc's growing role in the Balkans.
"Everybody knows why the EU came, the awful background," Mr Jagland said, pointing to polls suggesting inhabitants in southern European countries still wanted to be part of the EU despite the problems with the euro.
Last year's peace prize was awarded to three women from Africa and the Middle East but any sense of harmony between the winners was shattered this week when Leymah Gbowee, the Liberian activist, chided fellow winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia's president, for not doing enough to tackle corruption.