BRUSSELS (AFP-EJP)---Europe's leaders hailed Friday's award of the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize to the EU in recognition of 60 years without war even as critics attacked it as a misplaced, even undeserved, honour.
Alongside congratulations, there were calls too for the EU to live up to its responsibilities as the bloc struggles with soaring unemployment and a slumping economy -- causes enough for war in the past.
Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, the bedrock along with France of the early steps towards the union after the horrors of World War II, said naming the European Union was a "wonderful" decision.
The prize given by the Nobel Committee in Oslo "honours the idea of European integration", Merkel said, noting the "years of terrible bloodshed, horrible wars, murder and devastation" that had come before.
France said the prize, "which every European is proud of", meant there was a new responsibility now to create a continent that is "more united, more just, stronger and a bringer of peace".
For Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti, the prize should encourage EU governments and people to press forward, "overcoming the current economic difficulties".
Top EU leaders themselves were aglow with pride.
"I have to say that when I woke up this morning I did not expect it to be such a good day", was the first response from a beaming Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission head more used to a daily diet of criticism over the bloc's economic travails.
"The European Union has reunified a continent split by the Cold War," EU president Herman Van Rompuy said in a joint statement with Barroso.
"This Prize is the strongest possible recognition of the deep political motives behind our Union: the unique effort by ever more European states to overcome war and divisions and to jointly shape a continent of peace and prosperity. It is a Prize not just for the project and the institutions embodying a common interest, but for the 500 million citizens living in our Union", the statement added.
"At its origins the European Union brought together nations emerging from the ruins of devastating World Wars – which originated on this continent – and united them in a project for peace. Over the last sixty years, the European Union has reunified a continent split by the Cold War around values of respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights."
"These are also the values that the European Union promotes in order to make the world a better place for all. The European Union will continue to promote peace and security in the countries close to us and in the world at large. We are proud that the European Union is the world's largest provider of development assistance and humanitarian aid and is at the forefront of global efforts to fight climate change and promote global public goods."
"This Nobel Peace Prize shows that in these difficult times the European Union remains an inspiration for leaders and citizens all over the world."
But eurosceptics were aghast at the award, finding in it fresh grounds for complaint against an institution they see as overblown, over-extended, and damaging to the true interests of its people.
"This goes to show that the Norwegians really do have a sense of humour," said European parliament member Nigel Farage, head of the UK Independence Party, who wants a referendum on Britain leaving the EU.
"The EU may be getting the booby prize for peace because it sure hasn't created prosperity. The EU has created poverty and unemployment for millions," Farage charged.
Czech President Vaclav Klaus took a similar line, calling the prize a
"I really thought it was a hoax, a joke. I couldn't imagine even in a dream that someone could be serious about it," he added.
Lech Walesa, who won the 1983 Nobel Peace Prize for leading Poland's anti-communist movement, said he had been "unpleasantly surprised" by the award.
"Certainly the European Union is trying to change Europe and the world in a peaceful way but it gets paid to do that," while individual activists routinely make sacrifices and take huge risks to do so, Walesa said.
Both he and Klaus suggested it might have been better to award the prize to an individual rather than an organisation.
In marked contrast,UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the award as "a richly-deserved recognition of its accomplishments" not just in Europe but around the world.
"The European Union has more than lived up to its founding dream of forging a united and peaceful continent out of the devastation of two world wars...," Ban said.
"Its unifying potential is all the more important in today's economic
climate," he added.
US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was also fulsome in her praise. The unity and peace in the continent had not happened by accident, she said
"It happened because of the very hard work and dedication of leaders and citizens across Europe."
An Israeli foreign ministry statement of congratulations noted Israel's
"particular interest in the European peacemaking achievement".
"During World War II, the Jewish People lost one third of its members on European soil, and European reconciliation, therefore, affects Israel directly," it said.
NATO, the military alliance set up after World War II to defend Western Europe from the Soviet Union, saluted the EU's "vital role in healing the wounds of history".
Martin Schulz, head of the European Parliament, sounded a note of caution, however, highlighting the dangers posed by the debt crisis to Europe's "internal peace" in exacerbating the rich-poor divide.
"We cannot live in a union where in one country people are really rich ... and in others, people, even academics, have to rummage around rubbish bins to find something to eat."
Social media networks meanwhile were awash with comments ridiculing the choice.
Many people in the Twitter community dismissed the award as a bad joke.
"Anti-austerity protests in Portugal, Spain, Greece, Italy & France,
Nationalism, Fascism, unemployment and poverty. Yeah EU deserves it!" @AnonOpGreece said on Twitter.