London, 24 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook will set out his ideas for a standing European Conference bringing together the 15 European Union countries, the Central Europeans and Turkey during his visit to Central Europe this week.
On one-day stopovers in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, Cook will explain that Britain supports the proposed European Conference as a step towards enlarging the EU.
A Foreign Office spokesman said today: "For Britain, enlargement is a matter of the greatest historical importance: it's something which we support and promote to the maximum extent."
On his three-day tour, Cook will strongly back the European Commission's proposals to begin membership negotiations initially with five Central European countries -- Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Estonia -- as well as with Cyprus.
The spokesman said: "We support the view of the European Commission that we should begin negotiations with those countries that have a realistic chance in years ahead of joining the EU."
But he added: "We want a process which makes it politically clear that the other Central European countries have a vocation to become members of the EU, and also that the EU recognizes its responsibility to help them along the path to accession."
The spokesman said part of this process of "inclusivity" is the proposal for a standing European Conference, an idea supported by France, several other EU nations and the European Commission as a way of bringing applicant members into a common forum.
The spokesman said the conference could discuss pan-European issues such as foreign policy, economic cooperation, environmental protection, and the fight against crime and narcotics.
He said Britain hopes the conference will meet for the first time after London takes over the rotating six-month EU presidency on Jan. 1. But next month's European Council meeting in Luxembourg must first approve the proposal, and name the Central Europeans to be included in the first round of membership talks next spring.
The Foreign Office spokesman said the EU still lacks a consensus on how to handle the applications from would-be member nations.
He said the EU is split between a majority who believe talks should begin with those nations nominated by the European Commission (the "five" Central Europeans plus Cyprus) and others who say talks should begin with all eastern applicant nations.
The Foreign Office spokesman said: "The UK view is that the latter is a more dishonest approach, and one likely to cause greater uncertainties, than when you make a clear-cut differentiation."
He added: "But this isn't the end of the process, but simply the beginning for everyone. The UK sees enlargement as a pipeline, not as something where there is a finite first group."
On the decision to include Ankara in the proposed European conference, he said Turkey is "is a strategically important country whose westward leaning and European calling we need to nurture. It should have a developing and positive relationship with the EU."
He said enlargement of the EU is "one of the most momentous challenges facing the union over the next few years", and follows the historic decision in Madrid last July on NATO enlargement.
He said: "The UK sees enlargement as a process, not just a one-off, and we need to build a proper EU structure to cater for it."
Cook will be in Budapest on Wednesday, in Prague on Thursday and Warsaw on Friday.