Kohl woos MEPs on Union enlargement

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The Independent Online
STRASBOURG - The German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, backed by the Christian Democrat prime ministers of Luxembourg and Belgium, has promised the European parliament he will do his upmost to ensure that MEPs will have a proper voice in deciding the future shape of the European Union, writes Sarah Lambert. Mr Kohl has done this in an effort to persuade the 517 parliamentarians to support European Union membership of Finland, Sweden, Austria and Norway when the issue is put to a crucial vote today.

His support will add to the pressure on John Major, who is pledged to ensure that the 1996 inter-governmental conference designed to thrash out the future direction of a 16-strong Union changes as little as possible, and that the existing balance of power between the Union institutions is broadly maintained. The European Parliament, after the June elections, is likely to have a socialist majority with many German MEPs, keen advocates of decentralisation, in key positions.

The majority of the parliament must approve enlargement which, since the resignation of the British Tory MEP, Lord O'Hagan, means 259 votes cast in favour. But a significant proportion of MEPs are opposed to the idea of admitting four new members and were yesterday engaged in an intense lobbying campaign to persuade their colleagues to abstain or vote against.

For the parliament, today's vote is an unprecedented chance to exercise its limited powers to devastating effect. A 'no' vote would put off the process of enlargement for months, if not years, since without parliamentary assent the applicant countries would be unable to hold the national referendums which are the last hurdle before full membership in 1995.

But many parliamentarians fear that expansion of the Union will inevitably weaken the role of the parliament unless it is accompanied by a binding commitment to institutional reform. They are increasingly exasperated by the high- handed way in which they believe they are treated by ministers. They want to ensure that the 1996 intergovernmental conference (IGC) will enhance their powers.

At a March meeting of foreign ministers, amid the row over British opposition to changes in the voting rules, it was agreed to set up a working group to prepare the ground work for the IGC. Parliament was promised it could be 'associated' with this process, but wants the nature of that association spelt out. The threat to delay the enlargement process is an attempt to wring guarantees from the existing member states that the parliament will sit with ministers at the negotiating table.

'We have to ensure that the 1996 discussion is constitutionally based, we have to stop this drift to intergovernmentalism, to ensure that the IGC does not just become an attempt by each member state to defend the national interest against the rest,' said the French conservative, Jean-Louis Bourlanges. He is one of 100 signatories to a petition asking for delay of the enlargement vote until next week. The tactic is coercion, but the timing is delicate. With European elections next month, as many as a third of sitting MEPs will not be fighting their seats, and the rest will be out campaigning; it will be hard enough mustering the requisite 259 today, even harder seven days from now.

Yesterday saw targeted lobbying of wavering MEPs by their parliamentary colleagues, and leading diplomats from the applicant countries in Strasbourg in force. The Greens, Communists, Liberals and some Socialists are most likely to vote 'no'. There are also national divisions, with the Dutch, Belgians and, to a lesser extent, French and Italians, the most sceptical.