OSLO: Besieged by economic woes and insistent questions about its future, the European Union has accepted the Nobel peace prize with calls for further integration and a plea to remember the words of Abraham Lincoln as he addressed a divided nation at Gettysburg.
The prize ceremony, held in Oslo's City Hall and attended by 20 European leaders as well as Norway's royal family, brought a rare respite from the gloom that has settled on the European Union since the Greek debt crisis exploded three years ago, unleashing doubt about the long-term viability of the euro.
Unemployment and sputtering economic growth across the 27-nation bloc are ''putting the political bonds of our union to the test'', Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, said in his acceptance speech.
Union … Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel at the Oslo awards. Photo: Reuters
''If I can borrow the words of Abraham Lincoln at the time of another continental test, what is being assessed today is whether that union, or any union so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.''
The European Commission President, Jose Manuel Barroso, said the EU had moved from ''pooling coal and steel, to abolishing internal borders'' and had expanded from six to soon 28 members with the addition of Croatia in 2013.
''Today one of the most visible symbols of our unity is in everyone's hands. It is the euro, the currency of our European Union. We will stand by it,'' Mr Barroso said.
Aside from economic misery, the most serious threat to the bloc is growing pressure in Britain for a referendum on whether to pull out of the union. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, did not attend the ceremony, sending the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, but most other European leaders did, including the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the French President, Francois Hollande.
Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament, accepted the prize with Mr Van Rompuy and Mr Barroso on behalf of the 27-nation EU and its 500 million people but did not address the audience.
The EU said the prizemoney, worth 8 million Swedish kronor ($1.15 million), would be used for children in conflict zones.
Mr Van Rompuy's comparison of the European Union to the United States is likely to irritate critics of the EU, who reject efforts to push European nations to surrender more sovereignty in pursuit of what champions of federalism hope will one day be a United States of Europe.
Hailing the EU for helping bring peace to Europe after repeated wars, Thorbjorn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said: ''What this continent has achieved is truly fantastic, from being a continent of war to becoming a continent of peace.''
The decision to honour the EU stirred widespread criticism in Norway, whose citizens have twice voted not to join the union. Peace activists and supporters of left-wing political groups paraded through the streets of Oslo, carrying flaming torches and chanting: ''The EU is not a worthy winner.''
Three former peace prize laureates also questioned the decision.
The New York Times, Deutsche Presse-Agentur