PARIS — The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded its 2012 peace prize Friday to the 27-nation European Union, lauding its role over six decades in building peace and reconciliation among enemies who fought Europe’s bloodiest wars, even as the Continent wrestles with economic strife that threatens its cohesion and future.
The award also seemed to illuminate competing visions of Europe as both historical unifier and meddlesome overlord, recalling deep strains within the bloc, primarily between Germany and other European nations over Berlin’s insistence on austerity to resolve the euro crisis, measures that have brought pain to Greece and Spain in particular.
Thorbjorn Jagland, the former prime minister of Norway who is chairman of the panel awarding the prize, said there had been deep concern about Europe’s destiny as it faces the debt-driven woes that have placed the future of the single currency in jeopardy.
‘‘There is a great danger,’’ he said in Oslo. ‘‘We see already now an increase of extremism and nationalistic attitudes. There is a real danger that Europe will start disintegrating. Therefore, we should focus again on the fundamental aims of the organization.’’
Asked if the euro currency will survive, he replied: ‘‘That I don’t know. What I know is that if the euro fails, then the danger is that many other things will disintegrate as well, like the internal market and free borders. Then you will get nationalistic policies again. So it may set in motion a process which most Europeans would dislike.’’
In announcing the award, Jagland described it as a signal focusing on the union’s historical role binding France and Germany together after World War II and its perceived impact in spreading reconciliation and democracy beyond the Iron Curtain that once divided Europe and on to the Balkans. ‘‘The stabilizing part played by the EU has helped to transform most of Europe from a continent of war to a continent of peace,’’ he said.
Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission’s president, said the award proves the European body is ‘‘something very precious.’’
‘‘It is justified recognition for a unique project that works for the benefit of its citizens and also for the benefit of the world,’’ he said. ‘‘The award today by the Nobel Committee shows that even in these difficult times, the European Union remains an inspiration for countries and people all over the world and that the international community needs a strong European Union.’’
Norway is not a member of the European Union, and Jagland said some people in his country were not aware of the historical role it had played.
‘‘The union and its forerunners have for over six decades contributed to the advancement of peace and reconciliation, democracy and human rights in Europe,’’ Jagland said.
‘‘The dreadful suffering in World War II demonstrated the need for a new Europe. Over a 70-year period, Germany and France had fought three wars. Today, war between Germany and France is unthinkable.’’
At a press conference, Jagland said the committee had ‘‘no ambitions’’ that the $1.2 million prize would solve the multibillion-euro crisis, and suggested that the origin of Europe’s current economic uncertainty was the United States.
‘‘There are many things to say about the economic crisis — where it originated, for instance,’’ he said. ‘‘It started in the United States.’’
He added: ‘‘It started with Lehman Brothers.’’
In Greece, the powder keg of Europe, where society is fraying under the weight of austerity, the choice of winner generated little warmth.
“I think it’s unfair,’’ said Stavros Polychronopoulos, 60, in Athens, where residue from tear gas fired by police during demonstrations on Tuesday to protest a visit by the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, still clung to the sidewalks.
‘‘The leader of the EU is Germany, which is in an economic war with southern Europe,’’ Polychronopoulos said. ‘‘I consider this war equal to a real war. They don’t help peace.’’
European officials immediately raised the question of who would accept the peace prize on behalf of the bloc’s often bickering members, divided by tensions between its more affluent north and its struggling south.
At its headquarters in Brussels, several figureheads compete for prominence, including Barroso, president of the European Commission, which enforces treaties, and Herman Van Rompuy, president of the European Council, which represents heads of EU governments.