London, 12 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The European Union's plans for expansion into eastern and central Europe take a new step tomorrow with the staging of a conference in London involving the 15 EU nations and the 11 would-be members.
The European Conference is the first major setpiece of Britain's six-month rotating presidency of the EU, and will bring together 26 European heads of state and government for a day of speeches.
The conference is billed as a curtain-raiser for the start of the EU enlargement talks at the end of this month. The 11 aspiring nations, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Cyprus will all attend.
But, the purpose of the conference is under question because the "star" guest, Turkey, has refused to attend, protesting its omission from the list of 11 accession candidates by boycotting the event.
Turkey's absence is an embarrassment for the British organizers who apparently hoped that holding an annual European conference would help to bind Turkey into a pan-European network, while at the same time excluding Ankara from the EU accession process.
In effect, the conference was intended as a consolation prize for Ankara after the EU's Luxembourg summit denied Turkey a place in the queue. But the idea has backfired. Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz has strongly criticized the EU for excluding Turkey, accusing Germany, in particular, of blocking his country in favor of creating what he called more Christian "lebensraum" in Eastern Europe.
The Independent newspaper says Turkey's "public snub" has robbed the London talks of their main purpose. An East European official said: "We still don't know what they really want to achieve."
Critics said the ceremony to launch the EU enlargement talks will take place in three weeks' time anyway and that a good European "talking shop" already exists in the 38-nation Council of Europe.
In a clear damage limitation exercise, British diplomats have expressed disappointment at the Turkish boycott, but say Ankara's attendance was not the main reason for convening the conference.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook has said the European conference is designed to bring all EU applicants into a common forum where they can discuss issues of pan-European concern.
In a statement he said the conference will launch "a new process of Europe-wide exchanges at the highest level" and "will enable current EU member states and applicant countries to work together more effectively to deal with problems that affect us all."
He has said the forum is also meant as a gesture of "inclusivity" for countries in different stages of readiness to join the EU. (The "fast-track" five, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia lead the queue, ahead of the other eastern applicants).
Cook says the London conference -- to be chaired by Prime Minister Tony Blair -- will discuss a number of common problems: drugs and organized crime, environment, foreign and security policy, economic issues and regional cooperation. In recent days, British officials have added Kosovo to the list, following reports of a Serb police crackdown on ethnic Albanians in the province.
Foreign ministers of the 26 European countries are also expected to discuss the Kosovo crisis, among other topics, in separate talks. Heads of state and government will spend three hours at the conference opening ceremony followed by a lunch with Queen Elizabeth. Speeches by the leaders of all 26 nations are on the agenda. Each country will give a national press conference.
Italy insists that all 26 speeches are simultaneously translated into all 11 of the EU's official languages, posing a challenge to organizers trying to accommodate hordes of interpreters.
Correspondents say the conference will be a largely ceremonial but festive occasion with much talk of "inclusivity" to welcome the east/central Europeans. But Turkey's empty chair will be obvious.