MEPs display passion as never before

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The Independent Online
THE European Parliament thrives on attention, and yesterday it had plenty of that. Diplomats, lobbyists, journalists, officials, and even members of the public thronged its Strasbourg headquarters, all eagerly awaiting the institution's decision.

A British MEP was flown in from his hospital bed to vote. Robert Hersant, the billionaire French publisher, arrived for one of his infrequent visits, as did Achille Occhetto, leader of the reformed Italian Communists. This was the Big One.

For once, the place had a whiff of real influence. Many MEPs wanted to delay enlargement to gain new powers. But if the parliament turned down the four new applicants for membership, institutional crisis threatened. Everybody had prepared very carefully: even the huissiers, the ushers, had polished their watch chains a little more brightly than normal.

The man from the European Commission was running a book, and sums of cash were changing hands over glasses of cremant at lunchtime. The political groups followed the parliament's usual maxim: when the going gets tough, the tough hold meetings. In the public gallery, an unsavoury struggle for seats broke out between diplomats and the friends of Egon Klepsch, the President of the parliament.

The debate, for once, had some passion and excitement - even some heckling and cross-bench abuse. It was admirably chaired by Nicole Pery, a French Socialist. With a firm hand and a wicked gavel, she prevented the worst excesses of rhetoric in what was probably the parliament's longest- ever debate.

Much of the verbiage was sadly predictable. One needed no great insight to realise that Otto von Habsburg, scion of the great imperial family, would be in favour of letting Austria into the European Union, for instance. The Central and Eastern European countries should also be considered, he said, evidently with an eye to putting the old estates back together. Edward MacMillan-Scott, a British Tory, tactfully pointed out that 'we're not building an empire'.

When the vote came, however, it was embarassingly huge in support of the new members, with the largest turnout for any vote ever. The decision had not so much been balanced on a knife edge as on a cheese board, it turned out. Rather than reject enlargement in pursuit of greater influence, the parliament chose to lie back and think of Europe.

There, on the sidelines, was Jacques Delors, the man who had made all of this possible, with his usual mouthful-of-lemon-juice expression. Theodore Pangalos, the Greek Minister for European Affairs, sat polishing his glasses. Both placed bets on the result and neither did very well.

Afterwards, the many bars of the sprawling Strasbourg building were full of blue-eyed boys and girls from the far north and the Alpine valleys. They mixed happily with leather-clad bikers, here to lobby the parliament on motor- cycles, and some vaguely hippy sorts in T-shirts reading: 'No patents on life' (something to do with biotechnology). Chaos briefly reigned.

But as always, the winners and losers sorted themselves out. The French fascists departed in a huff. A Norwegian youth was ejected after waving a large flag, and went to wave it in the press centre instead. The Finns opened a free bar. Things were getting back to normal, whatever that is in the European parliament.