OSLO, Norway -- The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday for promoting peace and democracy in Europe -- an honor that came as 27-nation bloc was struggling with its biggest crisis since it was created in the 1950s.
The Norwegian prize committee said the EU was being honored Friday for six decades of contributions "to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe."
"The stabilizing part played by the European Union has helped to transform a once-torn Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace," Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said.
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 the European project is now facing its greatest challenge yet -- a debt crisis that has stirred deep tensions between north and south, caused unemployment to soar, and prompted hundreds of thousands of its citizens to take to the streets protesting 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.
Social media exploded with strong reactions Friday, both for and against awarding the prize -- worth 8 million Swedish kronor ($1.2 million).
"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 work in progress, such as the 1994 award to Yasser Arafat, Shimon Perez and Yitzhak Rabin, which was meant to boost Mideast peace efforts.
This year's award does both. It recognizes the EU's historical role in fostering peace, but it does so at a time when nationalist forces that once tore the continent apart are on the rise.
"It is indeed a great honor for all the 500 million citizens of Europe, for all the member states, for all the European institutions -- this Nobel Prize for peace," European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said. "It is justified recognition for a unique project that works for the benefit of its citizens and also for the benefit of the world."
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.
"Today war between Germany and France is unthinkable. This shows how, through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners," the committee said.
The citation also noted the democratic conditions the EU has demanded of all those nations waiting to join, referred to Greece Spain and Portugal when they joined in the 1980's after dictatorships, and to the countries in Eastern Europe who sought EU membership after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall.
"The EU is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest," Jagland said. "The Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to focus on what it sees as the EU's most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights.
It was not yet clear who would accept the prize for the EU.
The EU has been seen as possible candidate for the Nobel for many years, and the members of the committee had previously praised the community's significance as a promoter of peace and democracy in Europe. The chairman, Jagland, is also the secretary-general of the Council of Europe, a human rights group.
But skepticism against the EU runs high in oil-rich Norway, which is not a member and where popular opinion is firmly against membership. Norwegian voters rejected joining the EU twice, in 1972 and 1994.
The EU's success in making war between Germany and France unthinkable is beyond dispute. On the contrary, those two countries tend now to be the EU's dominant players, with the French president and the German chancellor often getting together to, in effect, hash out EU policy.
Britain has always been a half-hearted member since joining in the 1970s, and is not part of the 17-nation eurozone that shares a common currency.
While there have never been wars inside EU territory, the confederation has not been able to prevent European wars outside its borders. When the deadly Balkans wars erupted in the 1990s, the EU was unable by itself to stop them. It was only with the help of the United States and after over 100,000 lives were lost in Bosnia was peace eventually restored there, and several years later, to Kosovo.
Ritter reported from Stockholm. AP reporter Louise Nordstrom in Stockholm and Don Melvin in Brussels contributed to this report.