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Nobel award recognizes Europe as 'continent of peace'

Suzanne Plunkett / Reuters

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, left, European Council President Herman van Rompuy and European Parliament President Martin Schulz, seen here on Sunday, will receive the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the European Union in Oslo on Monday.

Updated at 9:20 a.m. ET: OSLO, Norway -- The European Union received the Nobel Peace Prize on Monday, as the Norwegian committee looked beyond Europe's current malaise to recognize its decades of stability and democracy after the horrors of two world wars.

Fittingly for an institution with no single leader, the EU sent three of its presidents to the Oslo ceremony for the 2012 prize, which critics including former Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu say is undeserved.

About 20 European government leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, also attended the ceremony.

"Sixty years of peace. It's the first time that this has happened in the long history of Europe," Herman Van Rompuy, the president of the European Council, said before the ceremony.

"The facts prove that the European Union is a peacekeeping instrument of the first order," said Van Rompuy, who was on hand to collect the prize along with European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament.

The EU has been awarded the Nobel Prize for its role in uniting the continent after two World Wars.  ITV's  James Mates reports.

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Economic pain
Europe is suffering feeble economic growth or outright recession, soaring unemployment and a number of its member states are unable to pay their debts. It has been called the worst economic crisis since World War II.

The economic pain has provoked social unrest in a number of member states, notably near-bankrupt Greece.

However, the Nobel committee focused on the EU's role in reconciling the disparate, warring corners of the "old continent" -- the overarching success being to turn Germany and France from enemies into allies.

From just six countries that agreed to pool their coal and steel production in the 1950s to 27 member states today -- and 28 once Croatia joins next year -- the EU now stretches from Portugal to Romania, Finland to Malta and sets rules and regulations that have a bearing on more than 500 million people.

"The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace," the Nobel committee said on Oct. 12 when it announced the EU had won, an unexpected decision.

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The prize money of $1.25 million will be given to projects that help children struggling in war zones, with the recipients to be announced next week. The EU has said it will match the prize money, doubling the sum to be given to selected aid projects.

The awarding of the prize to the EU has provoked criticism from some quarters.

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Three Peace Prize laureates -- Tutu, Mairead Maguire of Northern Ireland and Adolfo Perez Esquivel from Argentina -- have demanded that 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 Europe.

The Nobel Peace Prize is awarded each year in Oslo on Dec. 10, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel's death in 1896. Similar ceremonies are to be held in the Swedish capital, Stockholm, for the Nobel laureates in medicine, chemistry, physics and literature.

The decision to award the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU was met with confusion among those who have witnessed Europe's economic crisis, and deep unrest. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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