Ten more countries will be allowed to enter the European Union after the European Parliament in Strasbourg voted overwhelmingly in favor of their admission following a debate on Wednesday.
Adding stars: European Parliament clears the way for further EU expansion.
More than 95 percent of the European Parliament members present in Strasbourg came out in favor of admitting 10 new member states, clearing the way for a ceremonial signing of entry agreements when European Union leaders meet in Athens next week.
"The time for expansion has come, and that time is now," said Parliament President Pat Cox following the vote. A spokesman for German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder said Germany welcomes the parliament's decision.
'No more conflict borders' for Germany
The addition of the 10 new member countries, most of which lie in eastern Europe, is of particular geopolitical importance to Germany.
The expansion means that "my country will no longer have any external borders, with the exception of the border with Switzerland," said Germany's Elmar Brook, who represented the European Parliament in the new members' application process. "And that means Germany won't have any frontiers that can be war or conflict borders. What that means for the history of my people is something I don't need to explain further to the present company."
European Union Commissioner for Enlargement Günter Verheugen.
Germany's Günter Verheugen, EU expansion commissioner (photo), also chose to celebrate the historic occasion. "We are talking about 70 million people in Europe who have awaited this day with endless amounts of hope and expectation. With great courage and decisiveness, they have paved the way for a free and united Europe," he said.
Yet despite the upbeat commentaries, the new members got an unusually frosty welcome. Ambassadors from the candidate countries were astonished to find a half-empty plenary in Strasbourg. In addition, the EU's union for translators and administrative employees took advantage of the historic opportunity to strike against cuts in social benefits.
To the strikers, Germany's Hans-Gert Pöttering, leader of the European People's Party, said: "Don't use this historic day... to push through your own interests, although they well may be legitimate."
Meeting in Copenhagen in December of last year, the heads of state of the 15 current EU members agreed to accept Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus.
Concurrent with ratification proceedings in the current member countries, those countries seeking to enter the EU are holding referenda on the issue.
The people of Malta and Slovenia have already voted in favor of entry, and Hungary's population goes to the polls on the issue on Saturday. Membership for the 10 accession states is slated to take effect on May 1, 2004.