The European Union is awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in creating a "continent of peace". But in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the end of the war, is the timing ironic?

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The European Union won the Nobel Peace Prize for its long-term role in uniting the continent, the Norwegian Nobel committee said on Friday.

The award will be seen as a morale boost for the bloc as it struggles to resolve its debt crisis amid social unrest and revolt in southern Europe.

The committee praised the 27-nation EU for rebuilding after world war two and for its role in spreading stability to former communist countries after the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. The EU received the award for six decades of contributions "to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe," said the Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland.

"The stabilising part played by the European Union has helped to transform a once torn Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace."

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'Deeply touched'

The president of the European parliament, Martin Schulz, said he was "deeply touched and honoured" that the EU has won.

"Reconciliation is what the EU is about. It can serve as an inspiration," said Mr Schulz in a statement. "The EU is a unique project that replaced war with peace, hate with solidarity."

It is a moment when a lot of people on the street are turning their backs on the EU, seeing it as the source of their problems, rather than the solution. Philip Whyte, Centre for European Reform

The EU was a surprise recipient of the award, which is usually given to individuals or groups working towards reconciliation. Favourite to win was Gene Sharp, the leading political theorist on non-violent revolution, who influenced the Arab Spring uprisings.

The prize, worth $1.2m, will be presented in Oslo on 10 December. The Nobel committee said it was up to the EU to decide which country would receive the prize on behalf of the EU, and deliver the winner's lecture. The fact that Norway declined EU membership twice, and has since thrived, was not mentioned by the committee.

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History of reconciliation

The EU rose from the ashes of world war two, born of the conviction that closer economic ties would ensure that war could never again be waged between century-old enemies France and Germany. The idea became more defined when, in 1950, French foreign minister Robert Schuman proposed that the two countries pool their coal and steel resources in a new organisation - along with founding members Belgium, Italy, Luxembourg and the Netherlands - that other European countries could also join.

The 1960s saw a period of economic growth for the EU, and Denmark, Ireland and the UK joined in 1973. A few years later Portugal and Spain became members after the collapse of right wing dictatorships.

The EU is now made up of 500 million people in 27 nations, with other nations lining up to join. The Nobel committee pointed to the admission of Croatia next year and the possibility of Serbia's membership, as factors that helped strengthen reconciliation in the Balkans region.

'Ironic' timing

However in recent years the EU has been ridden with social unrest and diplomatic tension, following the debt crisis of the eurozone, particularly in Greece. Greek protesters recently donned swastikas when German Chancellor Angela Merkel visited the country this week, blaming Merkel for the worsening economic situation in the country, while there has also been a rise in extremism in the country and anger against immigrants.

Philip Whyte, senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform, said the timing of the award could be seen as "ironic".

Many EU countries have committed to austerity measures and stringent loan agreements, which they have very little power to resist and the terms of the eurozone bailout agreements could be seen as "undermining democracy in southern Europe", Mr Whyte said.

"It is a moment when a lot of people on the street are turning their backs on the EU, seeing it as the source of their problems, rather than the solution," he told Channel 4 News.

Reminder of alternative

The statement released by the Nobel committee acknowledged the "grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest" within the EU at the moment. But committee chair Mr Jagland said after the announcement that he hoped the prize would act as a reminder of what the EU had achieved, adding that if it was allowed to "disintegrate", there was a risk it could "dissolve into extremism".

"You might think it is perverse timing, but I think there is a particular thought behind the timing," Mr Whyte told Channel 4 News. "It is a reminder that the EU has been a force for good for much of its history, and in a sense, an encouragement to all those involved, to make sure it remains that way."