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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 July, 2004, 16:20 GMT 17:20 UK
Enlarged parliament marks historic day
By Alexandra Fouché
BBC News Online, European Parliament, Strasbourg

At last, the big day had arrived. Extra seats had been added, all the translators were in place, most MEPs had turned up ready to take part in that momentous event - the first plenary session of the enlarged parliament in Strasbourg.

Most MEPs were in attendance, with 700 present out of a possible 732 members - probably the fullest the chamber is likely to be over the next five years. Even the public gallery was two-thirds full.

European Parliament chamber
The chamber was enlarged to accommodate new members
The especially enlarged hemicycle - with an extra two rows of EU-blue seats at the back of the chamber - was made bigger to accommodate about 160 newbies in Strasbourg.

Also in place were the extra translating booths allowing for all 20 languages of the new EU to be translated simultaneously.

It was a day of weighty declarations and talk of freedom and solidarity.

The oldest member of parliament, Giovanni Berlinguer, a 79-year-old Italian MEP, opened the proceedings with three blows of his hammer.

Feminine colour

He welcomed members of the new countries and spoke of a reunited Europe based on democracy and the rule of law - "a Europe of work, of solidarity, of social justice, a united Europe which promotes integration".

The image of Europe has become very grey - people cannot find their way in Europe
Francis Wurtz
French Communist MEP
Polish MEP Bronislaw Geremek, one of the three candidates to the presidency of the parliament and a renowned European historian as well as a former Polish minister, was moved to quote Martin Luther King: "There is no politics without the initial dream."

Francis Wurtz, a French communist MEP and third candidate to the presidency, was the rare voice to sound a note of discord during the proceedings and perhaps one of realism given the recent disappointing result in the European elections.

"The image of Europe has become very grey," he said "People cannot find their way in Europe."

He pointed, for example, to the way the liberal market "was taking over" or to the support of a number of European countries - including a number of the new member states - for US President George W Bush's war on Iraq.

Women MEPs, who represent about a third of the new chamber, threw a spot of colour here and there, particularly the leader of the Green party, Monica Frassoni, whose colourful stripy jacket seemed to match the joy of the day.

Old and new

The mood was light as MEPs proceeded to vote to elect their new president.

Josep Borrell shaking hands with Bronislaw Geremek
Borrell defeated Geremek in the first round of voting
A mixture of old and new faces could be spotted - French far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and his daughter Marine, veteran Italian MEP Emma Bonino, Franco-German former May 1968 icon Daniel Cohn-Bendit, as well Polish MEP Malgorzata Maria Handzlik, distinguished by her short crop of red hair.

Dutifully, MEPs stood in an orderly queue to cast their ballot in transparent plastic boxes before being called back to their seats by Mr Berlinguer who was the last to cast his own vote, formally closing the ballot.

Then the verdict came. Josep Borrell, a Socialist from Spain, was elected by an absolute majority in the first round by 388 votes against 208 votes to Mr Geremek and 51 votes to Mr Wurtz - although in his impatience to congratulate the new president, Mr Berlinguer almost forgot to announce the result for Mr Wurtz.

The 57-year-old economics academic, born to a family of bakers in a small village in the Catalan Pyrenees, was active in the Socialist government of Felipe Gonzalez in Spain. He also sat on the convention that drafted the European Constitution.

Because of a back-room deal between the centre-right EPP party and the Socialists, Mr Borrell was a shoe-in for the job - although many members voted for Mr Geremek to express their discontent with the way European politics is conducted, observers say.

Mr Borrell is expected to be succeeded by Hans-Gert Poettering, the current leader of the EPP group in the second half of the legislative period of the current parliament which will sit till 2009.

Mr Borrell promised to conduct detailed consultation with leaders of political groups to form a consensus view of opinions in parliament, and promised to follow in particular the debate on the European constitution, especially in the countries which plan to hold referendums on the matter.

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