The decision by the Norwegian Nobel Peace Prize Committee to give this year’s award to the internally conflicted and tottering European Union has met with predictable scoffing abroad and, within Norway, anger that a pro-EU minority outmaneuvered the nation’s strong anti-EU majority.

But honoring the EU with the prize makes a legitimate point.

Protesters in Greece and Spain objecting to German-imposed austerity denounced the award. Their protests are a sign that the financial difficulties of Europe’s monetary union are loosening the economic ties that for more than 60 years have served to discourage Europe’s nations from fighting over their differences.

Proponents of the EU claim that it has changed a thousand years of belligerent behavior that culminated in two world wars and a 45-year-long Cold War during the last century.

In its award statement, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee hailed the EU for helping transform Europe “from a continent of war to a continent of peace.”

But the decision was the ironical outcome of opportunistic conflict between advocates of EU membership for Norway and its opponents. As such it was another reminder that the Norwegian Peace Prize Committee likes to tell the world what it thinks is important, such as awarding peace prizes to American politicians it likes: Jimmy Carter, Al Gore, Barack Obama.

Norwegian voters rejected EU membership by strong majorities in referendums held in 1972 and 1994. A leader of the opposition to EU membership, Aagot Valle, is a member of the Nobel Peace Prize committee, which must reach unanimous agreement.

According to several reports, she vetoed previous proposals to give the award to the EU. But this year she was incapacitated by illness, and her absence was seized upon by committee chairman and former Prime Minister Thorbjoern Jagland, who favors EU membership.

Reuters reported that Mr. Jagland said the award would stimulate “debate” in Norway on the question of EU membership. But the head of the Oslo Peace Research Institute, Kristian Berg Harpviken, denounced the decision, saying, “Many politicians here would see this as undue meddling in the internal affairs of Norway by the Nobel Committee.”

Does the EU, battered as it is by internal dissension, deserve the prize?

Yes, in part. The insight that rightly led French Foreign Minister Robert Schuman to propose the European Coal and Steel Community in 1950 was that a peaceful “Europe will not be made all at once, or according to a single plan. It will be built through concrete achievements which first create a de facto solidarity.” The ECSC was the forerunner of the EU.

But the European Union would never have evolved were it not for U.S. leadership for keeping the peace in Europe through NATO, backed by American armed forces and nuclear weapons. U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall, creator of the Marshall Plan to rebuild a shattered Europe, received a well-earned Peace Prize in 1953.

While the EU falls short of Gen. Marshall as a contributor to lasting peace, it has served as a unifying force for consensus building on a continent that has suffered from centuries of nationalistic bloodshed.

Whether the EU can maintain that unifying role depends on its ability to get its fiscal act together.

And the jury is still out on that crucial verdict.