The Week Ahead: MEPs hold key to European Union's expansion

THE European Union faces a big hurdle in its plan to expand to 16 members when MEPs decide on Wednesday whether to admit Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden on 1 January. MEPs will probably give their assent, but the vote is not in the bag, since they will dangle the threat of voting against to wrest promises of a bigger say in EU affairs. In expectation of a green light from Brussels, Austrian MPs vote on Thursday on joining. They, too, will probably go for it, despite opposition from the far-right Freedom Party and the Greens.

The Dutch general elections are tomorrow, and the ruling coalition of Christian Democrats and Labour is unlikely to keep its lower-house majority. A three-way coalition may result, though this could take months of horse-trading.

Elections are also due in Hungary on Sunday, when half the MPs will be elected through lists and the rest in individual constituencies. The Socialists - actually reformed Communists who promise capitalism with a more human face - are making the running as Hungarians are disillusioned with four years of a centre-right ruling coalition. Worryingly, a third of voters are undecided or plan not to vote at all.

Top candidates for Panama's elections on Sunday are Ernesto Perez of the Revolutionary Democratic Party and the salsa star Ruben Blades of the Mother Earth- Papa Egoro Movement. Nervous rivals have been trying to cast Blades as a colourful personality out of his league, but he is gaining in popularity none the less. Both Perez and Blades have faced aggressive criticism from hardline supporters of the former dictator Manuel Noriega, who is serving a 40-year prison term in the United States for drug trafficking.

Bill Clinton gives a 90-minute televised 'global news conference' tomorrow - which is World Press Freedom Day - when he makes a short speech and answers questions from reporters in Bosnia, Israel, South Korea and South Africa.

Four Muslim fundamentalists convicted in March for the bombing of the World Trade Center in New York in February will be sentenced on Wednesday. They could get life imprisonment without parole. And on Friday, Heidi Fleiss, said to be 'Madam to the Stars' goes on trial in Los Angeles on charges of pandering (procuring).

The first general strike in 36 years is expected today in Paraguay. The strike has been called by all three labour confederations after the government said last week it was unable to meet their demands for a 40 per cent increase in the national minimum wage.

The Channel tunnel is inaugurated on Friday by The Queen, who opens the international rail terminal at Waterloo, and Francois Mitterrand, who does the same at the Gare du Nord. They will each take a train to Calais, then travel in Her Majesty's Rolls-Royce to Folkestone. You and I will have to wait for months.

Vietnam marks the 40th anniversary of its victory over French forces at Dien Bien Phu on Saturday with a 190-mile bicycle rally. Also covering ground will be the Ypres Cat Procession in Belgium on Sunday. The festivities include musicians and dancers portraying the cat's history in literature and folklore. And Friday is International Clear Your Desk Day, which aims to increase job efficiency by eliminating unnecessary paperwork.

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