EU steps up divided and embattled to collect Nobel

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Undermined by three years of economic crisis, the European Union steps up divided Monday to collect this year's Nobel peace prize, awarded for turning Europe "from a continent of war to a continent of peace".

The Nobel medal, diploma and almost million-euro prize will be handed to the organisation's top officials -- EU president Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and European parliament chief Martin Schulz -- at a lavish ceremony in icy snowbound Oslo that kicks off at 1200 GMT.

Based on the will of old enemies France and Germany to reconcile after three bloody wars, the EU has grown from six states to 28 next July when Croatia becomes the latest of Balkans nations embroiled in conflict only 20 years ago to join the bloc.

For Norway's Nobel committee, the EU flag is synonomous with six decades of peace.

But the award also puts the spotlight on the union's current divisions and challenges ahead.

Half a dozen EU leaders, including Britain's premier David Cameron, are snubbing the event, taking place just four days before a key EU summit to determine the pace and the next steps in attempts to forge a tighter union.

"The Nobel committee picked their time carefully, when the EU was in crisis and nationalism on the rise," Jan Techau, director of the Carnegie Europe think tank, told AFP.

"This is a reminder to us. The EU is a key guarantor of peace but we hold this in disregard, we tend to forget."

There is talk currently of a possible EU exit by Britain -- or Brixit -- and the head of Britain's increasingly popular eurosceptic UKIP party, Nigel Farage, on Sunday said "far from bringing peace, the EU is engendering violence, poverty and despair across Europe".

Tensions meanwhile between the 17 nations that share the euro and those that remain outside are heightening, amid crisis-linked demands to tighten economic and monetary union.

At the Oslo ceremony will be leaders of the "big two" powers France and Germany, Francois Hollande and Angela Merkel.

But relations between these two are rocky, notably holding up a deal to set up a banking union seen as a key to the future of the eurozone, standing at a crossroads between more union and federalism -- or more uncertainty.

Rich nations of northern Europe and the struggling economies of the south meanwhile are increasingly divided as austerity reforms trigger fiery protests and feed extremist movements such as the one in Greece.

"Europe is going through a difficult period," EU president Van Rompuy said on the eve of the awards ceremony. "We are working hard ... We will come out of this time of uncertainty and recession stronger than we were before."

But the boon of winning the prestigious Nobel has failed to soothe divisions within the bloc.

Efforts last month to agree a new multi-year budget collapsed in an ugly showdown between have- and have-not nations and the bloc is also split over its stand on the Palestinian bid for a status upgrade at the United Nations.

Meanwhile unprecedented job cuts threaten stability as unemployment surges to one in four workers in Greece and to a massive one in two under-25s in Spain, whipping up talk of a "lost generation" of European youth.

On Sunday, Nobel Committee chairman, the ardently pro-European Thorbjoern Jagland, hailed the bloc despite its internal strain.

"The disputes and dramas have never led to war. On the contrary they have led to compromises," he said.

Schulz, a German Social Democrat at the head of the European parliament, said the award served as "a warning, an alert" to stick to the ideals of the founders of the bloc in the aftermath of World War II.