The European Union has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize by the Norwegian Nobel committee which argued that the EU had helped transform Europe “from the continent of war to a continent of peace”.
The EU receives this award while facing the biggest financial crisis of its history, with several states being rocked by recession and social unrest.
This situation was acknowledged by Nobel committee president Thorbjoern Jagland when he announced the award.
But he explained that the committee wanted to focus on the EU’s work over the past six decades of advancing “peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights”.
The EU’s work in sealing the reconciliation between France and Germany in the decades following World War II was highlighted by Mr Jagland. He also congratulated the organisation for incorporating Spain, Portugal and Greece in the 1970s, after their authoritarian regimes collapsed.
Pointing out that Croatia is on the verge of membership, Mr Jagland then said that the reconciliation work has now moved to Balkan countries.
Regarding Turkey, he said that the possibility of EU membership for had “advanced democracy and human rights in that country”.
In 1999 Medecins Sans Frontieres was the last organisation to receive the prize outright.
The Nobel Peace Prize made senior EU figures very happy.
European Council President Herman Van Rompuy said the award was a recognition for the work of “the biggest peacemaker in history”.
It was described as a “great honour” by EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso.
In an interview, Mr Barroso told the BBC that the Nobel committee was saying that the European project should be cherished within Europe but not only.
“I believe it is justified for the European Union to see its work for peace recognised, not only in the unification of the continent, but also outside our Europe,” he said.
“This started after the war – putting together former enemies. It started with six countries and we are now 27, another one is going to join us next year and more want to come. So the EU is the most important project for peace in terms of transnational, supernational co-operation.”
In the meantime German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she saw the Nobel as a “personal incentive” to build on six decades of peace in Europe.
“We must never forget that in order to keep this peace, democracy and freedom, we have to work hard over and over again,” she said.
During a visit to Senegal, French President Francois Hollande told journalists that the EU needed to show it was “worthy” of the award. “We are honoured, we are proud and at the same time we have our responsibilities before us.”
However not everybody praised the committee’s choice, which was criticised by several eurosceptic politicians.
The EU project was likened to the former Yugoslavia by Nigel Farage, of the UK Independence Party (UKIP).
“Rather than bring peace and harmony, the EU will cause insurgency and violence,” he said.
The timing of the award was also questioned by Dutch eurosceptic Geert Wilders : “A Nobel prize for the EU at a time Brussels and all of Europe is collapsing in misery. What next? An Oscar for Van Rompuy.”
The Nobel committee is used to sparking controversy with its choice of winner for the Peace Prize.
In 2009 it was awarded to US President Barack Obama, even though he was leading a country fighting two separate wars.
In 2010 the committee chose detained Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo. The decision enraged China, which made an official complaint to Norway.
Chinese writer Mo Yan won this year’s Nobel Prize for literature and said on Friday that he hoped Mr Liu would be freed as soon as possible.