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Central/Eastern Europe: Britain Backs Five Nations For EU Membership

London, 25 November 1997 (RFE/RL) -- British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook will argue for five transitional countries to be placed first in the queue for EU membership during his three-day tour of the region this week. The five are Hungary, the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovenia and Estonia.

Cook, who leaves tonight for one-day visits to Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, will say that Britain regards the enlargement of the 15-nation EU as "a matter of the greatest historical importance."

But he will also say that Britain backs the recommendation of the European Commission that six countries - the "five" plus Cyprus - should be included in the first wave of accession negotiations early next year. EU leaders will choose which countries are ready to begin entry talks at next month's EU summit in Luxembourg.

Britain assumes the six-month rotating presidency of the EU on January 1 -- and has expressed determination to "give a flying start to the process of getting membership negotiations under way, and setting a clear framework for enlargement."

A Foreign Office spokesman said yesterday the EU still lacks a consensus on how to handle the applications from the 10 candidate members. He said the EU is split between a majority who believe the talks should begin with the "five" plus Cyprus, and others who say talks should begin with all eastern applicant nations.

Denmark and Sweden argue that those countries which have been left off the European Commission's list -- Latvia, Lithuania, Bulgaria, Romania and Slovakia -- should receive better treatment.

The Scandinavians are seeking guarantees that all 10 candidates should be entitled to an annual review of their eligibility for membership, and that the enlargement process will be inclusive and non-discriminatory. The arguments were reportedly rehearsed at yesterday's meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels.

The Financial Times said today the Danes would like to "soften the feeling of rejection" by having all 10 nations included in the first phase of negotiations -- the so-called screening exercise when the Commission checks how far they comply with the rules and obligations linked to the single market and wider EU membership.

However, on his tour of Budapest, Prague and Warsaw, Cook will reject this view, arguing instead for what the British Foreign Office spokesman yesterday called "a policy of differentiation."

The British spokesman said if all 10 are included in the initial talks, some will "fall by the wayside fairly quickly" -- in other words, they will be judged as unworthy of EU membership at this stage.

Using unusually strong language, the British spokesman said the proposal to include all 10 eastern nations in the initial talks, "is actually a more dishonest approach, and one likely to cause greater uncertainties, than when you make a clear-cut differentiation."

However, Cook will stress this week that Britain strongly support an enlarged European Union to include all candidate members when they are able to meet the strict criteria for joining the EU.

The British say the first round of accession talks "isn't the end of the process, but simply the beginning for everyone. Enlargement is a pipeline, not something where there is a finite first group."

The Foreign Office spokesman said Cook will have five goals during talks with Hungarian, Czech and Polish officials this week.

First, he sees his tour as part of the preparations for Britain's EU presidency, and an opportunity to brief senior Central European politicians on how he sees enlargement going forward. He will say that Britain thinks it important to build a proper structure within the EU to cater for a wider membership.

Second, he will say that Britain supports a process which makes it politically clear to the other Central/East European countries that they all have a right to become EU members, and also that the EU has a responsibility for "helping them along the path to accession."

Third, he will argue for the establishment of a standing European Conference, bringing together the 15 EU nations, the Central/East Europeans, and Turkey. This would be a useful pan-European forum and should have a "developing and positive relationship with the EU." He will say that it should discuss foreign policy, economic cooperation, environment, and the fight against drugs and crime.

Fourth, he will say that Britain will continue to support the interests of the Central/East Europeans, in particular over such issues as getting better access for their goods to western markets.

Fifth, he will seek to promote two-way trade between Britain and the Central Europeans. He will point out that Eastern/Central Europe is Britain's fastest growing market in the world. He will say that British trade with the region has grown by 26 percent since 1995, and exports to Poland were up by 43 percent in 1996.

It will be the first visit by Cook as foreign secretary since his Labor Party won power earlier this year. He will say that Labor is much more friendly to the concept of a united Europe than the ousted Conservatives, and has given Britain a renewed influence in Europe.