The UK is one of only five countries with laws designed to protect captive animals.
British ministers will be armed with the alarming findings of an investigation by the RSPCA which found cruelty at zoos in Spain, Italy, France, the Netherlands and Belgium. The inspectors discovered captive animals in a distressed condition, many displaying psychotic behaviour or "zoochosis", pacing, rotating their heads and begging for food.
The RSPCA found distressed tigers pacing in the cramped enclosures of Limburgse Zoo at Genk in Belgium. Another was seen walking up and down on a raised plateau in Parc Zoologique, Paris. The tiger had little room to exercise but was tantalisingly in direct view of prey species.
Staff at the Menagerie du Jardin des Plantes, Paris, had placed many animals in direct view of predators, such as water deer watched by wolves, and muntjac deer by large cats.
The RSPCA also found rhinos, leopards, elephants, baboons and pumas in a distressed state in many zoos.
The report will be submitted to the EU Environment Council ahead of its meeting on 23 March. Britain, which will chair the meeting, will be seeking to use its position to introduce a tough licensing and inspection system aimed at ending the misery of animals kept in cramped, barren enclosures.
The UK has a high reputation for animal welfare with public opinion shifting in the past 20 years as television wildlife documentaries have shown animals in their natural habitats. This has lessened the appeal of "show case" animals and pressured zoos to place added emphasis on conservation.
There are some positive signals of a will for change. Last Thursday, MEPs voted for a major shake-up in zoo standards. The European vote may have been influenced by conditions at a squalid Belgian zoo, a few miles from the European Parliament, which was temporarily closed two years ago after it was found to contain more than 2,000 injured and starving animals.