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The EU received the Nobel Peace Prize on Monday for promoting peace and human rights in Europe following the devastation of World War II, and the bloc was urged to use that unity in its battle with an economic crisis that is causing suffering for many of its citizens.
About 20 European government leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and Italian Premier Mario Monti, attended the ceremony in the capital of Norway, an oil-rich country that has twice rejected joining the European Union.
Not everyone approved the decision to give the prize to the EU, created 60 years ago as Europe was struggling to recover from a war that killed millions of people.
Three Peace Prize laureates — South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland and Adolfo Perez Esquivel from Argentina — have demanded that the prize money of $1.2 million not be paid this year. They said the bloc contradicts the values associated with the prize because it relies on military force to ensure security.
Amnesty International said Monday that EU leaders should not "bask in the glow of the prize," warning that xenophobia and intolerance are now on the rise in the continent of 500 million people.
Prize committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland handed out the Nobel diplomas and medals to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy and president of the EU Parliament Martin Schulz before at a ceremony in Oslo's City Hall attended by heads of state, royalty and international dignitaries.
In his awarding speech, Jagland said the EU had been instrumental in turning "a continent of war" into one of peace.
"In this process the European Union has figured most prominently," he told an applauding gathering of several hundred people.
This year's prize comes against a backdrop of protests as the debt crisis for countries using the euro currency triggers tensions within the union, causing soaring unemployment and requiring massive austerity measures.
The EU's institutions, and the member countries, have been criticized for reacting too slowly to the crisis, which has continued for three years. The EU, and the 17 members that use the euro in particular, have struggled over too much government debt that has resulted in the eurozone's economy being mired in recession.
In his speech, Jagland addressed the financial woes, saying European unity has become increasingly important.
"The political framework in which the union is rooted is more important now than ever," he said. "We must stand together. We have collective responsibility."
Barroso told the gathering that the EU, "which has overcome war and totalitarianism," will always stand by those in pursuit of peace and human dignity.
"And let me say it from here today, the current situation in Syria is a stain on the world's conscience and the international community has a moral duty to address it," Barroso said.
As he spoke, EU foreign ministers were meeting in Brussels to discuss a range of issues including the civil war in Syria, where more than 40,000 people have died, according to activists. Syria's rebels have recently seized airbases near Damascus and Aleppo, and put President Bashar Assad's forces on their heels.
Jagland's speech mainly dealt with past achievements, saying the awarding committee had decided to honor the union, which grew out of the conviction that ever-closer economic ties would make sure that century-old enemies such as Germany and France never turned on each other again.
He described that reconciliation as "probably the most dramatic example in history to show that war and conflict can be turned so rapidly into peace and cooperation."
Jagland said the presence of Merkel and Hollande on Monday made "this day very particular, symbolic for all of us," prompting extended applause from the gathering and bows from the two leaders.
He didn't mention that the two leaders had spent most of the summer arguing over how best to solve Europe's economic problems. Merkel has stuck to her line that the region has to cut back and introduce painful reforms if it is to survive the current crisis, whereas Hollande has been calling for spending by governments to encourage growth.
In his speech, Van Rompuy acknowledged the economic crisis is causing "great hardship and putting the political bonds of our union to the test."
But, he said, "while we must keep a sense of proportion — even such tensions don't take us back to the darkness of the past — the test Europe is currently facing is real."
The Nobel Peace Prize is always awarded in Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death in 1896. Similar ceremonies were being held in the Swedish capital for the Nobel laureates in medicine, chemistry, physics and literature.