Political Focus: History Was Made as West Welcomed East; MEPs Have Just Completed Their Monthly Pilgrimage to Strasbourg. Political Correspondent Richard Hazlewood Visited the French City to See the European Parliament in Operation
Byline: Phillip Nifield
THE word ``historic'' can be over-used.
But events in Strasbourg this month marked a major step towards one such occasion, uniting the countries of western Europe with those from the former Communist east.
Delegates from nations bidding to join the EU joined colleagues from the existing 15 member states last week for a special debate in the European Parliament as part of the biggest expansion process in the European Union's 50-year history.
The Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia, along with the Mediterranean islands of Malta and Cyprus, will become members in May 2004. Bulgaria and Romania expect to join in 2007, while Turkey is also bidding for membership.
Each visitor to Strasbourg was assigned a ``monitor'' from among the current MEPs to show them round and check the facilities. Expanded interpretation requirements - 23 languages will be used in the enlarged EU - were also tested.
European Commission president Romano Prodi likened the visit from applicant country delegates to the first day at school.
``I bid the members of parliament from the candidate countries welcome to what will become the home of all Europeans. Your presence signals the opening of a new chapter for Europe,'' he said.
Last week's agenda in Strasbourg included proposals for a ban on tobacco sponsorship and advertising, votes to improve the rights of temporary workers, and the parliament's inquiry into the handling of the 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. But enlargement took centre stage.
Jonathan Evans, the Conservative Party leader in the European Parliament, said the Tories have always been in favour of expanding the size of the EU. …