April 10, 2003
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Union's parliament ratified a historic expansion Wednesday, making it nearly certain 10 mostly eastern European countries will join the bloc next year.
The 626-member parliament overwhelmingly backed the countries' entry to the EU in 10 votes.
Now, the parliaments of all 15 EU members must approve the expansion and new members must hold public referendums. Support for accession is high and it is almost certain all of the countries will join May 1, 2004.
"This is the choice to put an end to a Europe fractured by Europe's barbaric 20th century and to create . . . a Europe reconciled and united, around common ideals and common values," European Parliament President Pat Cox said.
The 10 countries on the ballot are Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Malta and Cyprus. Malta and Slovenia already have backed membership. Hungary votes Saturday.
The EU parliament urged the new members to "fulfill commitments" and to fix remaining problems, especially corruption, crime and issues of minority rights.
Lawmakers also insisted the expanded EU "speak with a common voice in world politics" and urged members to show "a stronger sense of solidarity" in forging common policies, including a joint foreign and defense policy.
"The Berlin Wall has finally fallen," German conservative Elmar Brok said. "We now have it in writing. The EU has finally done away with the division" of Europe after the Cold War.
Ahead of the vote, several EU lawmakers questioned whether the bloc was ready to absorb 10 members at once, fearing it would lead to fights over money and power.
"While we have to give a loud 'yes' to enlargement, without any doubt, we have not been able to . . . fully prepare ourselves," Green party leader Daniel Cohn-Bendit said.
Ten German members from the conservative People's Party group, representing the state of Bavaria, voted against the Czech entry to protest Prague's refusal to repeal laws expelling ethnic Germans after World War II.
The Czech Republic got the highest number of "no" votes because of the protest, but easily gained entry with 489 votes in favor, 39 against and 37 abstaining.
If the 10 members join, the population of the EU bloc will increase by 75-million to 453-million.