EU lawmakers vote to add 10 new member states
BRUSSELS, Belgium -- The European Union's parliament endorsed the bloc's historic expansion eastward Wednesday, but not without cautioning current and future members to fulfill their commitments so the larger union can "speak with a common voice."
In separate votes for each of the 10 acceding nations, the 626-member EU assembly overwhelmingly supported the expansion scheduled for May 1, 2004. Those 10 nations are Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Slovakia, Malta and Cyprus.
The expansion will be the union's fifth and largest since its founding in 1957. It currently has 15 members.
"Finally, after all the arguments and after all the debates, we get the defining moment," European Parliament President Pat Cox said. "The time for enlargement has come and the time is now."
While approving the expansion, the EU assembly in Strasbourg, France, warned that the club's current and future members had to commit to building an "ever-closer union."
The assembly insisted that a 25-member EU "speak with a common voice in world politics" and urged EU capitals to show "a stronger sense of solidarity" -- a reference to the gaping rift within Europe over Iraq.
The European parliament also urged newcomers to "fulfill commitments" and fix remaining problems, especially in fighting corruption, crime and in protecting minority rights.
The expansion will cost the present European Union another $41 billion in aid over three years to boost the new member's economies, notably by supporting farmers, building roads or replacing Soviet-era nuclear power plants.
The new members' entries still have to be approved by national legislatures in the current EU members, and that is considered highly likely. The candidates also are holding referendums to ratify membership, with Malta and Slovenia already voting in favor and Hungary voting Saturday.
Ewa Haczyk, a spokeswoman for Polish government's negotiating team with the EU, said the vote is "of colossal significance" and recognizes the democratic and economic reforms undertaken in Poland since communism fell in 1989.
In Hungary, the government welcomed the EU assembly's vote.
"Now the decision is in our hands, this historic chance to rise with the developed side of Europe," Foreign Minister Laszlo Kovacs said in Budapest.
On average, more than 500 of the parliament's 626 members voted in favor of the expansion. Not all assembly members were present Wednesday.
The Czech Republic received the most "no" votes, with 39. Ten German conservatives voted against it to protest the Czech Republic's refusal to repeal laws expelling ethnic Germans from Czechoslovakia after World War II.
Leaders from the 10 new states will sign their accession treaties in Athens, Greece, next Wednesday at a special EU summit.
With the new members, the EU will surpass the North American Free Trade Agreement as the world's largest market, with 453 million people compared with NAFTA's 416 million.