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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU Approves Admission For 4 More Countries

STRASBOURG, France -- The European Parliament on Wednesday overwhelmingly approved European Union plans to admit Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden to the 12-nation bloc. What had originally promised to be a nail-biting vote, turned into a massive welcome for the four and endorsement for plans to extend the union to 16 members stretching northward beyond the Arctic Circle and along Russia's western border. "I'm very happy. It has been a long effort so now I feel appeased. I did expect a success but not this big a success," Greek European Affairs Minister Theodore Pangalos, who concluded entry terms with the four on behalf of the bloc in March, said after the votes. 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 of the 517 members had to vote in favor in each case. Parliament President Egon Klepsch told a packed, applauding chamber the vote in favor of extending the EU would increase confidence in the assembly only six weeks before its elections. "You are very welcome to the European Union," he told the candidates. The "yes" removes only one hurdle to EU enlargement. The four countries must now gain the backing of their populations in referendums, the outcomes of which are far from certain. "It is a large warm-hearted invitation to join us. It's up to them to decide," Pangalos told a news conference after the crucial vote. He also forecast the EU's 12 national parliaments would have no difficulty in ratifying the accession deals. Diplomats have previously expressed doubts that they can all do so by next 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. Faced with a potentially embarrassing rejection, political party leaders had lobbied support to prevent the parliament taking the blame only weeks before its own elections in June. France's Jean-Pierre Cot, president of the parliament's largest group, the Socialists, said that not since the new parliament had opened five years ago had so many deputies been present. "The parliament really pulled out all the stops," he said. Even some of the most hardline opponents of the plans abstained from voting, leaving only a handful of around 23 deputies voting against.