London, 13 March 1998 (RFE/RL) -- The European Conference in London yesterday marked both a beginning to the ambitious drive to build an enlarged EU of 26 nations, and an end to the divisions of the Cold War era.
The conference brought together 15 state or government heads of the EU and leaders of 11 aspirant members, most from Central-Eastern Europe, for the first time in a single forum. With politicians from all 26 nations sitting down at one table, the symbolism of the event was more important than its agenda.
Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, spoke of how the "whole European family" had gathered for what he called "a historic event." He said: "It is the first time in more than 500 years that we now have the historic chance to unite our continent in peace and freedom."
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who chaired the one-day summit, said it had been an "extraordinary symbol" of how a Europe that had been divided for decades had come together.
He said the 10 eastern countries represented in London "15 or 20 years ago could not even have dreamed of participating in a conference with EU members and agreeing on common policies."
The conference is intended by the EU to be a new forum of cooperation with the prospective new members, as well as a common forum for the discussion of pan-European concerns.
It is intended to give the East and Central European nations a feeling of "inclusivity" in the European integration process during the protracted negotiations on entry -- which could take 5, 10 or 20 years, and give some countries EU membership long before others.
The conference was a curtain-raiser to the start of the EU accession talks in Brussels on March 31. The bilateral negotiations will initially involve the five "fast-track" countries: Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, and Estonia (plus Cyprus), all of whom are said to have made sufficient progress with their reforms. The other five hopefuls, Lithuania, Latvia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Slovakia, will have to wait, but will almost certainly be in the second wave.
Yesterday's celebratory mood was marred by the absence of Turkey, which boycotted the conference because it was excluded from the first and second wave of EU applicants. Rejecting Turkey's membership bid in December, EU leaders cited its poor human rights record and political and economic problems. Turkey suspects discrimination because it would be the EU's first Muslim member.
Turkish Prime Minister Mesut Yilmaz refused to join the 26 other countries celebrating a reunited Europe, and instead made a visit to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, a mission seen as demonstrating that Ankara is not totally dependent on the EU.
British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook, whose country holds the rotating six-month presidency of the EU, said the door is still open for Turkey to join the conference -- which will be annual event.
Another jarring note was sounded by Greece, an EU member, which has threatened to veto the enlargement process unless Cyprus is included in the negotiations. France has said membership talks should not begin unless representatives from the Turkish-controlled side of the divided Mediterranean island are included. President Jacques Chirac said of Cyprus's application "it is hard to see how the EU can proceed to absorb a member state that is divided."
The conference issued a joint statement strongly condemning the use of force by Serb police in Kosovo, scene of a crackdown on the ethnic Albanian majority in which dozens are feared killed.
Other issues on the agenda were international drug trafficking and environmental protection. The 26 countries endorsed a German proposal to set up a drugs task force representing each of their countries to fight drug taking, particularly among young people.
The drugs initiative was seen as a signal to the East and Central Europeans that they will have to fall in line with EU rules on complex cross-border issues like drugs and crime if they are to join the club.
A concluding statement from the conference spoke of a "new era" in European cooperation. It said enlargement of the EU offers the chance to entrench stability and prosperity across the continent. And the host, Prime Minister Blair, said it had been a "truly historical day."