New MEPs enter the den of disunity

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The Independent Online
STRASBOURG - Headstrong as always, but more fractious than ever, the new European Parliament took its seat yesterday. Like its predecessor, the Parliament is out to make itself heard by the Commission, the European Union's executive bureaucracy, and the Council of Ministers, which represents national governments, Andrew Marshall writes.

MEPs took a historic step, rejecting a piece of legislation using its new Maastricht powers for the first time. By a hefty majority, 373 to 45 with 12 abstentions, it killed off a measure to open up Europe's telecommunications sector, which is relatively unimportant in itself but may set a precedent.

MEPs chose their new president, Klaus Hansch, of the largest group, the Socialists. Of 567 MEPs, 365 voted for Mr Hansch, 87 for Liberal MEP, Yves Galland, and 82 spoilt their ballots.

As usual, there was an arrangement between the Socialists and the EPP, splitting the posts between them. But this drew fire from the smaller groupings and independent members. 'There is only the consensus of two big groups,' said Winifred Ewing, (SNP, Highlands and Islands). 'That's not consensus, that's a kind of dictatorship,' she said. 'We see before us the fruit of a process of conspiracy that we have to stand up and condemn,' said Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the French National Front.

There are some unhappy marriages. The Scottish Nationalists have linked up with the Radical Energy party led by Bernard Tapie, the controversial French businessman. Rejecting criticism of the move yesterday, Mrs Ewing and Allan Macartney (SNP, North-East Scotland) said that no group had entirely clean hands.

The Liberal Democrats also seemed uneasy with their partners in the European Liberal Democrat and Reformist group. It is well to the right of Paddy Ashdown's party. It also includes the Italian Northern League

Mr Hansch struggled with an unusually chaotic session. 'Ladies and gentlemen, don't get so het up,' he pleaded as each of the new MEPs rushed to intervene. 'It seems that some people do not seem to understand how the voting machinery works,' he conceded at one point. And the machinery itself did not seem to be co-operating. 'Has everybody voted?' he asked plaintively. The Parliament resorted to black marks on pieces of paper to choose its new vice-presidents.

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