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Keeping a continent together in peace in wake of centuries of war remains amazing achievement

Just what does the EU really stand for?

With a multitude of nations at the same table, the European Union has always been a big, bickering family of former allies and enemies that has somehow stuck together through good times and bad for the past 62 years.

Even if some don't really have their heart in it, they still show up whenever a gathering is called.

A slew of jerry-rigged EU institutions built over decades of brinksmanship is the glue that has bonded leaders as diverse as Britain's Margaret Thatcher to Germany's Helmut Kohl to France's Francois Mitterrand.

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SUMMITS GALORE

What stands out is all 27 leaders rubbing shoulders during the many EU summit meetings. Often they look like endless debating sessions that highlight deeper political rifts between aging world powers like Britain, France and Germany. They often end in the wee hours with bleary-eyed leaders explaining some compromise deal that will placate the disparate nations at least until the next summit a month later.

The European financial crisis has given such meetings in Brussels much more urgency in the past few years. Still, the markets have more often punished EU nations for their lack of decisive action at summits rather than reward them for coming up with crafty solutions.

During the war with Iraq almost a decade ago, the meetings often laid bare the glaring differences between British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a staunch U.S. ally, and French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder on the other hand.

As fundamental as such differences were, the EU always survived, since on many key issues of sovereignty, member states could still go their own way.

It is this flexibility and amazing measure of compromise that has given the EU such a central role in holding together Europe's disparate nations. In that sense, it has been a driver of sustained peace.

Detractors relentlessly rip the EU's ability to come up with a fudge, papering over fundamental differences while the EU seems inexorably headed towards even more unity by stealth.

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A UNITED EUROPE

As the dust of World War II settled, it gave way to the dream of a united Europe, where Germany and Italy would no longer be able to fight Britain and France, but all be condemned to cooperation. The success of turning that vision into reality earned the EU its Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.

Faced with a patchwork of languages, religions and cultures, it was clear from 1950 that economic unity was the best way to unite former enemies. France and Germany welded steel and coal industries together and industry cooperation drove ever closer cooperation as six founding members became a dozen, and then some. A united farm policy drove out the fear of hunger, the best guarantor of peace.

It was not all peace and prosperity though. Soon sovereignty clashed head on with unity, and once Britain joined, the engine that drove the union suddenly found a nation reaching for the hand brake.

And what better issue to fight over than finances? Thatcher, Britain's former leader, insisted her nation was contributing far too much and famously said "we are simply asking to have our own money back." That is not how the EU works, and the principle of 'rich' helping 'poor' led to the union expanding south and east.

It all looked so good that a core of EU nations even agreed on a common currency — the euro.

Now though, with 17 nations sharing the euro, money is again stretching the EU to the brink, with insults going back and forth between rich and poor nations over who is to blame for the financial crisis.

"We needed good news," said EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso upon hearing the Nobel win on Friday.

"WHO DO I CALL IF I WANT TO CALL EUROPE?

Barroso, of course is only one of the EU presidents. There is EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy too, and the president of the European Parliament, on top of a European Union presidency that rotates between its member nations.

All those politicians are only the tip of a bureaucratic iceberg whose byzantine institutions have distanced decision-making from citizens across the continent.

Complicated? It has always been. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was driven to such despair that he openly asked "Who do I call if I want to call Europe?"

There still is no clear answer several decades later.