The European Parliament on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved European Union plans to admit Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden to the 12-nation bloc.
The “yes” removes one hurdle to EU enlargement and throws the spotlight on the four countries, which must gain the backing of their populations in referendums whose outcomes are far from certain.
In the European Parliament, the legislative assembly of the European Communities, what had originally promised to be a nail-biting vote turned into a massive welcome for the four.
The group also endorsed plans to extend the EU to 16 members stretching northward beyond the Arctic Circle and along Russia’s western border.
Austria and Norway were each approved by a vote of 374 to 24, while Finland was approved by 374 to 21 and Sweden by 380 to 21.
For the Parliament to give its assent, 259 members of the 517-member house had to vote in favor in each case.
Parliament President Egon Klepsch told a packed, applauding chamber that the vote in favor of extending the EU will increase confidence in the assembly only six weeks before its elections.
“It is a large, warmhearted invitation to join us. It’s up to them to decide,” Greek European Affairs Minister Theodoros Pangalos told a news conference after the vote.
Pangalos forecast that the EU’s 12 national parliaments will have no difficulty in ratifying the accession deals.
Diplomats have previously expressed doubts that they can all do so by Jan. 1, the planned date for enlargement.
The large “yes” vote came as a surprise after months of threats by members of the Strasbourg-based Parliament to veto the enlargement plans unless they went side by side with an overhaul of the EU’s institutions.