Heralding a new era of expansion, the European Union has clinched deals with Austria, Finland and Sweden on terms for admitting them as members next year.
Their scheduled entry on Jan. 1 would give a lift to the EU's ambition to become a more powerful player on the world scene. The last real obstacle to membership in each country is a referendum on the idea.
Norway also was negotiating to enter the organization. But negotiators, weary after more than four days of bargaining, suspended talks with Norway early Tuesday after it refused to grant the 12-nation union more fishing rights in its North Sea waters. Behind-the-scenes talks were resumed later to try to break the deadlock.
With 16 member states and a population of 375-million, the European Union would be larger than the North American Free Trade Agreement, which links the United States, Canada and Mexico.
The EU hopes that with more members, it will move closer to fulfilling decades-old dreams of a united Europe. Its new Treaty on European Union calls for a common foreign policy and a single currency by 1999.
"Sweden, Finland and Austria will make a major contribution to extending European unity," said Greece's deputy foreign minister, Theodoros Pangalos.
Once the candidate nations wrap up membership accords, they must still convince skeptical populations that joining the European Union _ sometimes seen as a meddlesome federal bureaucracy _ is in their interests.
All must win approval of the membership accords through referendums.