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EU: Parliament Elects Fervent Supporter Of Expansion

The European Parliament in Strasbourg has chosen a new president. He is Irish Liberal Democrat Pat Cox, who says his priority is to bring into the EU as many Central and Eastern European countries -- as speedily -- as he can. RFE/RL correspondent Breffni O'Rourke reports.

Prague, 16 January 2002 (RFE/RL) -- The European Parliament in Strasbourg has elected Irish Liberal Democrat Patrick Cox as its new president.

Cox, a strong supporter of the European Union's eastward expansion, won a tough contest yesterday against four other candidates. In a third round of balloting, he defeated his nearest rival, David Martin of the Party of European Socialists, by 298 votes to 237.

Cox, who will serve a two-and-a-half-year term, succeeds French conservative Nicole Fontaine.

In remarks to RFE/RL before his election, Cox said that one of his foremost priorities is to actively support and push forward the drive for EU membership by the Central and Eastern European countries.

"A key priority in the lifetime of the current parliament before the next elections will be to bring finality to as wide a circle of enlargement with candidate states as can possibly be [accomplished]."

The EU's Executive Commission is currently engaged in accession negotiations with a total of 12 candidates, including the Mediterranean states Malta and Cyprus. The expectation is that the front-runners in this group will finish the negotiations by the end of this year, and be admitted as members in time to participate in the European Parliament elections set for mid-2004. It's not clear how many candidates can make that deadline, but EU officials have spoken of the possibility of up to 10 doing so. The parliament must approve by ratification the membership of each incoming member country.

Cox, a former television journalist and academic from Limerick in Ireland, is a committed pro-integrationist known for his eloquence and persuasive powers. His wants to transmit his enthusiasm for eastward enlargement, and his sense of urgency on the matter, to his fellow deputies.

Of EU enlargement, he says, "It is the historic challenge of our generation of Europeans, and I hope that the parliament will be not just a very active participant, but an active advocate of the earliest and widest closure possible on enlargement."

Cox, as president, will have the task of preparing for the arrival of the newcomers, and he is suggesting that the parliament should reach out to them even before they become formal members of the Union.

"I myself am strongly of the opinion that as soon as the candidate states are in a position to sign a draft accession treaty, that the European Parliament should consider a procedure to grant observer status -- in other words, the right to attend and debate [in the parliament], but not yet to vote -- to a representative selection of parliamentarians from candidate states so that they can become familiar with the procedures of the parliament and the contemporary, current issues in European debate, and that they can be an avant-garde for the European message, in terms of their own societies," Cox said.

Cox describes this message as a pluralist one, in that he believes the great majority of people want to see a re-unified Europe, within the EU. He acknowledges, however, that some people -- both in current EU member states and in the candidate countries -- are "Euroskeptic," meaning they do not favor increased European integration.

He says the parliament must open its doors to all opinions, while at the same time providing what he calls a capacity for people to develop "European perspectives." He says he wants parliamentarians to react "creatively" as politicians to the challenges of EU expansion and European integration.

Turning to other matters of concern, Cox says the legislature must communicate its role and importance better to the broader European public. This is a reference to widespread voter apathy toward European elections, and to popular confusion as to the task of the European Parliament. The parliament is in fact the EU's only directly elected body and has wide powers of legislative co-decision with the Council of Ministers. It also has the power to approve or reject the Union's massive $70 billion annual budget.

He says that at the coming constitutional convention on the future of Europe, which starts in March, the parliament must work to enhance and define its role in the enlarged Union.

"The parliament must play an important democrat's role in insisting that we have a democratic and democratically accountable Europe rather than a technocratic Europe," Cox said.

Another priority, says Cox, will be to encourage the deputies to spend more time in political debate, rather than in considering the mere technicalities of procedure.