EU smoothes the path to membership

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In an effort to demonstrate that its doors remain open to any aspiring new members, the European Union aims to set up a standing European Conference on enlargement next year.

The idea has received strong backing from Britain, and is likely to be launched at an enlargement summit, under the next British presidency of the EU, which begins in January.

EU foreign ministers, meeting in the Dutch town of Apeldoorn at the weekend, promoted the idea to smooth the transition towards a larger union. The conference would probably be open to all comers, including prospective members who by next year should have begun negotiations with the EU, and those still waiting on the sidelines.

The hope is that by setting up such a conference, Brussels will avoid causing divisions between countries which are tipped for early membership and those who will be told to wait longer. Of the 11 countries on thewaiting list, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic are at the head of the queue. The EU is committed to starting the negotiations with applicant countries by the end of the year.

The ministers yesterday remained undecided about the precise form that the conference would take. Overshadowing the debate was the question of whether Turkey would be invited to join the conference.

The controversy over Turkey's application for membership of the EU is dogging all discussion of enlargement. Strong words from Christian Democrat and other right-wingers last month, arguing against Turkish membership, have led to speculation that several countries, led by Germany, wish to block Turkish membership for ever.

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday said Turkey's case should be judged on the same criteria as any other would-be members. He warned his partners against setting up any additional "religious or cultural criteria" for membership. "Turkey is entitled to be treated in the same way as any other applicant country," Mr Rifkind said. The US, concerned about the security implications of isolating Turkey, is also lobbying EU governments, to persuade them to welcome Turkey into the fold.

The foreign ministers also remained undecided yesterday about how the negotiations with applicant member states should be handled when the time for the talks begin.

Some countries believe that negotiations should start only with those states deemed ready to join up. Other member states believe that the negotiations on membership should begin simultaneously with all countries, to avoid making divisions.

The issue of enlargement is looming ever larger on the EU's agenda as the deadline for beginning negotiations with new member states approaches. Yesterday's meeting, which took place in the 17th-century Palace of Het Loo, built for William of Orange, was intended to formulate a strategy for enlargement.

The EU has been placed under new pressure to clarify its vision of enlargement as the process of Nato enlargement has gained momentum. Nato is expected to decide which countries to accept into its alliance at a summit in Madrid in June.