Munich, 4 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - German officials say that with less than a week to go before the NATO summit in Madrid the Alliance remains divided on whether it should begin negotiations with three or five prospective new members.
A Foreign Ministry official in Bonn said this today: "The U.S. and some other countries insist that for economic and political reasons only Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic should be invited to join at this time. France, supported in varying degree by several other countries, still believes that negotiations should also begin now with Romania and Slovenia."
The spokesman said France had indicated this week that it would not use its veto if the other NATO states were willing to accept only three new members. He also said NATO Secretary General Javier Solana has conducted intensive negotiations over the past few weeks to try to reach a consensus but had not yet been successful. Solana's talks will continue through the weekend as the delegations gather in Madrid in advance of the Summit beginning on Tuesday. If he is not successful by Monday, diplomats expect day and night sessions of the 16 foreign ministers and their political experts.
The obvious question is what happens if there is no agreement. Solana himself rejected this possibility with words like "unthinkable" and "inconceivable"
Bonn officials said the softening of the French attitude had been apparent in yesterday's talks in Bonn between French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine and German chancellor Helmut Kohl. Officials said Vedrine had insisted that all five countries met the conditions for membership and France would continue to fight for Romania and Slovenia until the last minute. But he indicated that France would give way if all the other countries were ready to accept on Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic.
France will be represented at the Summit by conservative President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Vedrine, a socialist. Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, also a socialist, will not attend.
In regard to the U.S. position, Bonn officials said NATO countries had to take into account the public hostility in some important U.S. political centers against expanding the Alliance by even three members. Last week 46 U.S. foreign policy experts published an open letter to President Bill Clinton claiming that any expansion of NATO would be a major error. The signatories included such important names as the former arms negotiator Paul Nitze and former secretary of defense Robert McNamara.
The Bonn foreign ministry official said: "We have to recognize it may be difficult for President Clinton to get the 67 votes he needs in the U.S. Senate to ratify any expansion of NATO. The Summit will have to weigh whether it will be even more difficult to gain approval for five members than for three."
The admission of new members has to be ratified by the parliaments of all 16 current NATO states. But it is widely recognized that the greatest difficulties will probably occur in the U.S. Senate, which must ratify the enlargement by a two-thirds majority.
Germany itself has made no public commitments either way, although unofficially diplomats in Bonn expect that Chancellor Kohl will agree in Madrid to admitting only three new members now -- with a promise that negotiations with Romania and Slovenia and possibly other countries will begin "soon."
Of the "outsiders," Romania is the most anxious to be invited to begin accession talks now. Despite the high economic costs of membership for a nation still struggling to rise out of poverty, Bucharest sees benefits in early membership. It believes being a part of NATO would bring the country closer together by showing that it was a full member of the European family.
The government puts a high value on this symbolism in a country which often feels it is considered a "second class" European state. The government also feels
membership in NATO would indicate to the world that Romania is politically stable and encourage much-needed foreign investment.
Romania's president Emil Constantinescu made a special visit to Bonn this week to try to obtain German support. The result was an ambiguous statement that Kohl and his Government had "a lot of sympathy for the Romanian desire for early NATO membership and support it." But an official in Kohl's office said this should not be misinterpreted.
"Early NATO membership" did not necessarily mean at next week's Summit, he indicated. "There is no date," he said.
NATO Secretary General Solana made an equally ambiguous statement about Romania in an interview with the Belgian newspaper "Le Soir" this week. He said Romania "is a valid candidate which deserves entry into NATO." But he did not say whether he supported Romania's inclusion in the list to be announced next
week or for a second wave of members some time later.
Under the current timetable, the first new members of NATO will be admitted to the alliance in April 1999 on the 50th anniversary of the 1949 Washington Treaty which created the Alliance. Most experts believe there will be no talks on a second round of expansion until after this date and probably not until the year 2000.
A spokesman for the U.S. embassy in Bonn said that opinion in the U.S. Congress about expansion of NATO wavered back and forth and it was impossible to predict what the situation would be when the time came for the Senate vote -- probably some time next year.
"A lot depends on the arguments of President Clinton and other who support expansion," he said diplomatically.
Last year, 81 of the 100 senators voted in favor of legislation to prepare former communist countries for membership in NATO as soon as possible. But last week eight of those senators published a letter to President Clinton asking for more debate on the issue and also asking a number of probing questions.
U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbot, who favors expansion, said Congress would give its approval only if it was convinced that the U.S. would not be damaged by bringing in new members from Central Europe and that the costs would not be too high.
Experts say some of the doubts are caused by the wide difference in estimates of the cost of NATO expansion and how much the U.S. taxpayer would have to provide. Some estimates claim it could cost the U.S. as much as $1.2 billion a year for 15 years. Others have a much lower estimate of from $200 to $300 million a year for the same period.
A major factor in the U.S. debate is the requirement under article Five of the NATO treaty for NATO members to consider an attack on any one of them as an attack on them all. Some ask whether Americans are ready to die for Hungary or Poland -- or Romania.
But those are questions for the future. The first decision comes next week when NATO decides whether to begin negotiations only with Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic or also with Romania and Slovenia.