The European Union has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Norwegian Nobel Committee announced Friday.

The EU has transformed most of Europe "from a continent of wars to a continent of peace," committee Chairman Thorbjoern Jagland said in Oslo.

While acknowledging that the 27-member union "is currently undergoing grave economic difficulties and considerable social unrest," Jagland said the Norwegian Nobel Committee wants to focus on "the EU's most important result: the successful struggle for peace and reconciliation and for democracy and human rights."

The 930,000-euro ($1.2 million) prize is to be presented Dec. 10 in Oslo.

The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to the EU was interpreted as a stimulus for the euro and European political union by such leaders as German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy.

"The EU was built on the ashes of two wars" and the award signifies "for me, personally," a "notable encouragement" for the European project's common efforts, Merkel said.

Rajoy hailed the "excellent news" that the EU took the prize, which in his opinion sirves as a stimulus for the further consolidation of Europe's political, economic and monetary union.

For his part, Italian Premier Mario Monti said that the "formula of integration to stop war and promote peace invented by the EU" is an object of "study and admiration in many parts of the world."

And European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso noted the "great honor for the entire EU and for its 500 million citizens."

But the announcement also had its critics.

The winner of the 1980 Nobel Peace Prize, Argentina's Adolfo Perez Esquivel, said that the awarding of the prize to the EU should not be used to justify military action on other continents.

"The Nobel Peace Prize for the European Union should be a wake-up call for them to stop their military meddling on other continents," he said.

Lyudmila Alexeyeva, an 85-year-old Russian activist who spent years in exile during the Soviet era, voiced similar views.

"I fail to understand giving a peace prize to the EU, whose countries took part in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and in other conflicts," she told Efe.

The Nobel Committee's choice prompted anger in Greece, the country that has suffered most from the economic crisis and the austerity programs imposed by the EU and the International Monetary Fund.

"The Nobel Committee's decision is a hypocrisy that offends the people of Europe at a time when they are victims of an undeclared war against all their social rights," the main opposition party, Syriza, said in a statement.

Stazis Anestis, a leader of Greece's largest private sector union, told Efe that the prize "makes perfectly clear the EU's responsibility in this economic war with thousands of victims, specifically in southern Europe." EFE