Europe votes 'yes' to four new nations

Click to follow
THE EUROPEAN parliament yesterday voted overwhelmingly in favour of admitting Norway, Sweden, Finland and Austria to the European Union. Only public rejection at a national referendum in those four countries can now prevent them taking their seats next year as full members of a Union of 16 members representing 370 million citizens from the Arctic Circle to the Adriatic.

The parliament confounded the critics who feared it would not be able to muster the necessary majority of 259 MEPs or would hold enlargement hostage to its battle for extra powers. Members turned out in record numbers for what some had dubbed 'a meeting with history'. Of a possible 517 sitting MEPs, 486 crowded into the chamber, packed as never before in recent memory.

There was a vote on each country, and when the result for the first applicant, Norway, was announced as 374 in favour, 24 against and 58 abstentions, a huge cheer went up. Austria recorded 374 for, 24 against, and 61 abstentions; Finland 377 for, 21 against, 61 abstentions, and Sweden 380 for, 20 against with 60 abstentions.

The parliament's president, Egon Klepsch, declared: 'This is a decision of historic importance for the European Parliament, the general public has been made aware that this is a parliament with great power, aware of its responsibilities. Six weeks ahead of the European elections this is an important message. Welcome to the European Union.'

Even Jacques Delors, the president of the European Commission who steps down this year, described the vote as a victory for democracy. He remained, however, unrepentant in his belief that it is a mistake to enlarge the Union without first strengthening the institutional structures underpinning it. 'It is now a question of limiting the damage,' he said.

Unusually strict party discipline ensured a 'yes' vote stronger than enlargement's staunchest supporters had expected. But many MEPs were deeply unhappy at their failure to secure guarantees of new powers to influence the future construction of an enlarged EU. Until the very last, 107 MEPs had pressed to have the vote at least postponed, the better to coerce member-state governments to negotiate.

'They have put a gun to our heads,' complained the French conservative, Jean Louis Bourlanges. Leon Schwartzenberg, a French Socialist, said: 'They have put the European Parliament in a trap. If we vote against enlargement we will be accused of irresponsibility, if we vote in favour with no institutional guarantees the Union becomes little more than a free- trade area - what a good job John Major will have done then.'

Only the extreme-left and the extreme-right groupings in the parliament, ideologically opposed to enlargement, voted 'no'. Two Dutch liberals voted 'no' in the case of Norway and Finland on the grounds that the two countries were not pro-European enough. One French conservative refused to endorse Austria until it acknowledged its willing connivance with Nazi Germany. The British MEPs all voted in favour.

Austria will go to the polls on 12 June, and the others are set to follow in the following months. Norway, whose public is the most Euro- sceptic, will probably hold its referendum last to increase the pressure for a vote in favour. Norway's Trade Minister, Grete Knudsen, described yesterday's vote as 'a positive signal' for its referendum.