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EU: European Parliament Preparing For Historic Election

The European Parliament is already looking ahead past next year's scheduled expansion of the European Union to the election that will follow almost immediately afterwards. It is the vote that will expand the parliament with scores of deputies from the accession countries. Conservative members are reportedly preparing for the election by considering the formation of a new party which would oppose closer European integration. They are said to be particularly interested in recruiting allies in the future Central and Eastern European member states.

Prague, 12 November 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The European Parliament, the democratic arm of the European Union, is moving into election mode as it prepares for the historic vote that will seat deputies for the first time from the accession countries of East and Central Europe.

The single-chamber parliament is expanding from 626 to 732 seats next year with the addition of the representatives from the 10 new members.

The newcomers will not have to arrive completely "in the dark" however. "Observer" deputies from the candidates' national parliaments have been present in the European Parliament during this year. They are familiarizing themselves with its workings and will pass on their knowledge to those fledgling deputies selected by the popular vote in June.

Despite the election day being more than six months away, parties and individuals are beginning to lay out their priorities and plan their election campaigns.

The president of the European Parliament, the energetic Irishman Pat Cox, is making an intensive tour of EU member states to urge strong participation in the vote. The last election, in 1999, saw an overall turnout of 49.7 percent across the 15 members. Cox says an improvement in this figure is important to bring legitimacy to the democratic body, which is armed with increasingly important oversight powers in the union.

At the start of his presidency, Cox set out as one of his main objectives bringing the candidate states into the fold, and as it has turned out, the 10 will become union members only a month before the election.

Cox's spokesman David Harley says the president considers that objective fulfilled.

"He is obviously satisfied, and extremely satisfied, that enlargement will now happen from the first of May next year, and that has been the main activity which he has devoted his time and energy to in the course of his presidency. he spent an awful lot of time traveling on several different occasions to each of the accession states, and he is delighted that progress has been made, and that the continent will now be united," Harley said.

Harley characterizes 2004 as a "truly historic" year for Europe. There is the accession, the parliament election, the planned adoption of a new EU constitution and then the installment of a new executive commission in Brussels, replacing President Romano Prodi and his team.

This will be the sixth direct election to the European Union parliament since 1979, and Harley says Cox wants it to take place in an atmosphere of informed debate on the issues that are important for Europe, including the differing views of what the EU itself should be.

"[Cox] very much hopes that in partnership with political parties and possibly also with the media, that we can promote a genuine European and more political election campaign for next year," Harley said.

At present, the biggest party in the parliament is the European People's Party (EPP), a grouping of center-right parties. Second is the Party of European Socialists (PES).

But there are fears of a split in EPP ranks through the breaking away of MEPs led by the British Conservative Party bloc.

Press reports from Brussels quote sources as saying British "Eurorealists" -- as skeptics now call themselves -- want to set up a party called New Europe, and that they are seeking much of their support from the accession countries of Central and East Europe.

Among those parties seen as possible members of New Europe are the Czech Republic's biggest party the Civic Democrats (ODS), Slovakia's Christian Democrats (KDH), and parties in Estonia and Portugal.

The British Conservatives for the moment are not giving any definite information. A party spokeswoman, Elizabeth Sugg, said that the party is committed to staying within the EPP "until the election." But her comment gave some room to suppose there might be changes after that: "All I can say on this issue is that that is our line. We have made a commitment to be part of the EPP until the election, and we will stand by that, and then obviously, everyone will be re-assessing their position, after the election in June."

The EPP for its part, would regret the loss of any present members. "We have an agreement with the British Tories [Conservative Party] until the next election, and we expect that to be honored. After the election, we will see what happens. We think it is in our interest to maintain the group we have -- in other words, with the British Conservatives -- and that will be our intention after the European election as well," EPP Spokesman Bob Fitzhenry said.

If the new party is formed, and if they draw other parties to their banner, this could reduce the size of the EPP sufficiently to put it in second place behind the Socialists. This in turn would put the Socialists in a better position to influence the choice of a European Commission president to replace Romano Prodi.