The FINANCIAL — The three European Union leaders in Norway to collect the Nobel peace prize moved Sunday to defuse criticism of the 2012 award, vowing the crisis-hit bloc would emerge strong and remain on a course of peace.
"Europe is going through a difficult period," EU president Herman Van Rompuy told a packed news conference on the eve of the awards ceremony.
"We are working hard, jointly as a union and in all individual countries, to overcome these problems," he added.
"I'm sure we will succeed. We will come out of this time of uncertainty and recession stronger than we were before."
Van Rompuy was speaking in eurosceptic Norway, a country stubbornly opposed to joining the bloc.
As protests and job cuts traumatise Europe after three years of dire economic crisis, the Nobel Committee has come under attack for its decision to commend the EU for turning a continent at war into a continent at peace.
But the Nobel Committee chairman, the ardently pro-European Thorbjoern Jagland, justified the choice by the absence of conflict on a scale seen in the two world wars of the 20th century.
"The disputes and dramas have never led to war. On the contrary they have led to compromises,"
But highlighting the strain building as the EU weathers its worst crisis in 60 years, half a dozen leaders, including Britain's premier David Cameron, will snub Monday's ceremony.
"We want Europe to become again a symbol of hope," Van Rompuy added.
He flew into snowbound Oslo with European Commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and European parliament head Martin Schulz. Together, they will pick up the prize on behalf of the EU.
But the crisis is undermining solidarity and generosity inside the EU.
Only last month, efforts to agree a new multi-year budget collapsed month in an ugly showdown between the rich nations of northern Europe and the struggling economies of the south.
And as the jobless figures rise, so too does support for nationalist and xenophobic movements.
In Greece, where unemployment is running at one-in-four and in Spain, where a half of under-25s are jobless, there is increasing talk of a "lost generation".
"The unprecedented financial crisis shows we were not fully equipped to cope with a crisis of this magnitude," Barroso conceded.
But the answer, he said, was more union. "All the steps were in favour of more integration, not less."
And he still hoped for agreement at a summit next week, only four days after the Nobel award. As EUbusiness said, that meeting will look at setting up a banking union between the 17 eurozone nations, a first step towards tighter economic and monetary union.
Attending the ceremony in Oslo will be the leaders of the "big two" powers, France and Germany, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel.
But relations between these two are rocky, with disagreements between the two leaders holding up the deal on a banking union.
Hailing the bloc's contribution in strengthening democracy for half a billion people — some only recently emerging from authoritarian regimes — Barroso said that "over the next 60 years Europe must lead the global quest for peace."
And next year, the bloc prepares to enlarge yet further by embracing Croatia as its 28th member next year.
Shulz, a German Socialist at the head of the European parliament, said the award must be "a warning, an alert" to stick to the ideals of the founders of the bloc in the aftermath of World War II.