— The European Union has received this year's Nobel Peace Prize for turning Europe "from a continent of war to a continent of peace" in the wake of two world wars.
Norwegian Nobel Committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland presented the award Monday to EU President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Parliament President Martin Schulz in the Norwegian capital, Oslo.
Jagland said the political union is more important than ever during Europe’s current economic crisis.
"We must stand together," he said. "We have collective responsibility. Without this European cooperation, the result might easily have been new protectionism, new nationalism, with the risk that the ground gained would be lost.”
The European Commission president said the European Union deserved the award.
"It is in fact probably the most successful ever process of reconciliation," said Barroso, describing the founding of the federation. "The union, in transnational terms — we have now 27, very soon 28, countries — united not only around the value of peace, but freedom and democracy."
The committee credited the 27-nation bloc for being a stabilizing player throughout the last 60 years that have seen Western and Eastern Europe rejoined following the break-up of the Soviet Union and the settling of ethnically based national conflicts.
Demonstrators on hand
Critics say the European Union is undeserving of the prize, however, as it suffers from political division and social unrest, triggered mainly by the continent's ongoing economic crisis.
About 200 people marched through the Norwegian capital Sunday to protest against the award.
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Peace activists who joined Sunday’s protest said they do not reject the cause of European integration, but view the union as undeserving of a peace prize that was meant to honor contributions to disarmament. Many were angry with the way the EU has handled the continent's financial crisis, especially in Greece, where they say austerity measures have contributed to increased poverty and unemployment.
European Council President Van Rompuy said the European Union is helping struggling countries overcome their financial difficulties.
“Of course, the countries have to put their houses in order, and that is very painful," he said. "We know this, but at the same time we are helping them by providing financial support."
Other critics drew attention to human-rights issues in Europe, including discrimination against Roma and Islamophobia.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and other European leaders also attended the ceremony.
Some information for this report was provided by AP, AFP and Reuters.