OSLO, Norway – European leaders arriving in the frosty Norwegian capital to receive this year's Nobel Peace Prize are coming to a wealthy and deeply EU-skeptic nation that has twice voted to stay outside the bloc grappling with one of its worst financial crises since the union was founded.
Nobel committee chairman Thorbjoern Jagland will hand the prestigious award on Monday to a troika of leaders — EU Council President Herman Van Rompuy, European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso and the president of the EU Parliament, Martin Schulz — against a backdrop of demonstrations in this northern stronghold of anti-EU sentiment.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced in October that it was granting this year's prize, worth $1.2 million, to the European Union for fostering peace on a continent ravaged by war — a decision derided by many who see the EU as an elitist super state that erodes citizens' rights and their identities.
About 20 European government leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Francois Hollande and British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, will attend the award ceremony at Oslo City Hall, followed by a banquet at the Grand Hotel.
It will be the biggest gathering of EU leaders in the Scandinavian country to date, sparking a major security operation exceeded only by President Barack Obama's visit in 2009, when he won the peace prize. Measures include a two-day flight ban over the capital, armed police securing key sites with military helicopter backup and strict border controls.
As the leaders begin to arrive Sunday they will be met by demonstrators marching under the banner: "EU2012: No peace prize for our time."
A rally backed by three former peace prize winners — the International Peace Bureau, Mairead Maguire and Adolfo Perez Esquivel — and more than 40 Norwegian and international organizations will pass through central Oslo, near the hotel housing the delegates.
But, demonstration organizers said, they decided on a one-day protest before the prize awarding ceremonies to avoid confrontation.
"We do not want trouble. This will be peaceful and dignified," said Heming Olaussen, head of Norway's anti-EU movement.
The European Union grew out of the conviction that ever-closer economic ties would ensure that century-old enemies like Germany and France never turned on each other again, starting with the creation in 1951 of the European Coal and Steel Community, declared as "a first step in the federation of Europe."
The Nobel committee said in its award citation that it was a sign that "through well-aimed efforts and by building up mutual confidence, historical enemies can become close partners."
About 60 years later, the union has grown into a 27-nation bloc with a population of 500 million, with other nations eagerly waiting to join, even as European unity is being threatened by a debt crisis that has stirred deep tensions between north and south.
The crisis has caused unemployment to soar, sending hundreds of thousands into the streets to protest austerity measures, and is threatening the euro — the common currency used by 17 of its members — and even the structure of the union itself. It is also fueling extremist movements such as Golden Dawn in Greece, which opponents brand as neo-Nazi.
European leaders will celebrate the peace prize in a prosperous, oil-rich nation of 5 million on the outskirts of Europe, far from the financial woes.
Norwegians have rejected EU membership in two referendums, with the "No to EU Alliance" movement claiming more than 27,000 members, including members of leading political parties and trade unions, Cabinet ministers, farmers and fishermen.
"(The strong alliance) explains why Norway is staying out of EU . and I think it will be forever," Olaussen says, describing this year's award as "a provocation to a vast number of Norwegians."
The EU delegation in Oslo sees the prize as a chance to soften Norwegians' image of the union. But resistance is tough, even though Norway implements most EU legislation through the Agreement on the European Economic Area. Moreover, the Schengen pact allows Norwegians the right to travel passport-free within some European countries.
Janos Herman, EU ambassador to Norway, says he hopes the prize will help highlight the EU as a global player with roots in the rule of law and humanitarian values.
"We hope very much that the prize will give an opportunity to widen the picture," Herman said.
The other Nobel Prizes — in medicine, chemistry, physics and literature, and the Nobel Memorial Prize in economic sciences — will be handed out at a separate ceremony on Monday in the Swedish capital, Stockholm. The ceremonies are always held on the anniversary of award founder Alfred Nobel's death in 1896.
Associated Press writer Matti Huuhtanen contributed to this report from Helsinki, Finland.