Madrid, 8 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Leaders of the 16 NATO countries have begun a closed-door meeting in Madrid. The summit will lead later today to formal invitations to between three and five former Communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe to join the alliance. A top-level French official predicted today that tensions between France and the United States over the extent of expansion will be resolved amicably.
NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana, formally opening the summit this morning, said the Madrid meeting is a "landmark." He said NATO must demonstrate the flexibility to adapt to a new Europe.
He said that the NATO summit will be remembered as the time when North America and Europe came together to shape a new century.
Solana also said that in the last few years NATO's relationship with its Eastern neighbors has blossomed. The culmination of this process is to be the invitation later today to some of the Eastern neighbors to join the alliance.
The United States has formally backed first-wave entrance only for Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary, and many observers expect this view to prevail. However, France and Italy also want Romania and Slovenia to be included. A NATO official yesterday predicted that there will be genuine debate at today's meeting, but that all 16 countries will reach a concensus on the number of new members.
Solana stressed that the first wave of expansion will not be the last, and that the alliance will remain open to cooperation with other nations. Tomorrow. the alliance is scheduled to sign an agreement with Ukraine similar to one already signed with Russia. Solana said the new partnership agreement will establish "a very special relations between NATO and Ukraine."
A top-level French official, who spoke to journalists in Madrid on condition that his name not be used, said that there will be differences of opinion at today's closed-door meeting. However, the official predicted that "there will be a happy ending."
Disagreements arose after U.S. President Bill Clinton publicly endorsed immediate invitations for only three countries. France has argued strongly that Romania should also be invited to join the Western alliance in its first wave of eastward expansion.
On another subject under discussion in Madrid, Clinton called yesterday for new negotiations between NATO and France on reintegrating Paris into the alliance's military wing, which France quit in 1966.
Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, in remarks opening the summit, said he is confident talks will lead to a resolution within months. Aznar's own country, Spain, is expected to join NATO's unified military command structure soon -- perhaps even at this summit.