But if economic ties once brought peace, they are now putting European unity at risk. The economic crisis has stirred tensions between north and south, caused unemployment to soar and sent hundreds of thousands of people into the streets to protest tax hikes and job cuts.
The bloc's financial disarray is threatening the euro â¿¿ the common currency used by 17 of its members â¿¿ and fueling the rise of extremist movements such as Golden Dawn in Greece. The party, branded as neo-Nazi by opponents, has soared in popularity as Greece sinks deeper into a debt-fueled morass.
Marine Le Pen, head of the far-right National Front in France, told AP Television News that the EU is "massively rejected by Europeans" and doesn't deserve the prize.
"This is practically a provocation considering the suffering of millions of Europeans who today see themselves led by the European Union to a veritable economic and social war," she said. "Three years ago, it was Barack Obama who won it while he was engaged in military wars. So this Nobel Peace Prize has actually become a Nobel prize of war."Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said the committee had no position on how to solve the continent's economic crisis. "But we send a very strong message that we should keep in mind why we got this Europe after World War II," he said. "We should do everything we can to safeguard it, not let it disintegrate and let the extremism and nationalism grow again." The road ahead remains difficult. European leaders enjoyed a period of relative calm over the summer, when it seemed they had built the more centralized institutions that many economists believe are necessary to the stability of the common currency. But now there are what the economist De Grauwe called "rear guard battles" in which some EU states, notably Germany, appear to be trying to undo or dilute some of those accomplishments, including a proposed banking union and the ability of the European Central Bank to reduce countries' borrowing costs by buying sovereign bonds.