Brussels, 2 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- Under low gray skies and in intermittent rain, foreign ministers from old and new NATO states today listened to the anthems of the seven new members as their flags were raised to join the existing 19.
The new NATO members are Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia.
The ministers then attended a rare public session of the North-Atlantic Council, NATO's highest decision-making body. Ministers from the new member states each addressed their colleagues.
NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer called the enlargement "the clearest demonstration that in Europe, geography no longer equals destiny." He said NATO's expansion pays tribute to the strength of the alliance's core values and commitments, as well as the need to continually fight for them. De Hoop Scheffer pointed to the new members' long history of struggle against tyranny and oppression.
He said that today's expansion ceremony was therefore an "emotional occasion." "We rejoice," de Hoop Scheffer said. "We are glad. We are happy. We are a 26-nation alliance, and you know the NATO door is open, because there are more countries aspiring and having the ambition to share those same values in the Atlantic alliance."
Representatives from the new member states were united in acknowledging that while they had joined NATO in expectation of lasting security guarantees, they must now be prepared to face new security threats, such as terrorism.
Slovak Foreign Minister Eduard Kukan said it is "natural" that the alliance must change. "I think it's only natural that the alliance is also changing in order to face the new challenges, to face the new threats and to face the new situation in the world," he said. "It is quite natural, and I think that the fact that there is a new alliance is perfectly OK. We are fully aware of what kind of alliance we are joining, and we are ready to assume all the responsibility."
Kukan, as well as the foreign ministers of Bulgaria and Romania -- Solomon Pasi and Mircea Geoana -- were at the forefront in fielding questions from reporters on whether they support greater NATO involvement in Iraq. Kukan's answer was a short "yes, sir," while Geoana said NATO has a "moral obligation" to stabilize Iraq.
NATO's relationship with Russia was another concern on many minds this morning. De Hoop Scheffer downplayed fears that Russia's relatively sharp reaction to the latest round of expansion may sour ties. Pointing to a meeting of the NATO-Russia Council scheduled for later today, he said the alliance will continue aiming for a "constructive partnership.”
"We discuss subjects [with Russia] on which we agree, but we also discuss the more difficult subjects on which we might not immediately agree, but this is what the NATO-Russian Council is for. So I think that we can, with an enlarged NATO, have the same good constructive partnership with the Russian Federation as we have had over the past years," de Hoop Scheffer said.
At their working lunch today, the foreign ministers from the seven new member states will get their first chance to acquaint themselves firsthand with NATO's daily business. Issues such as alliance transformation, the fight against terrorism and prospective NATO involvement in the Greater Middle East will be broached. NATO sources say expanding the alliance's role in Afghanistan is also on the agenda, and contributions of troops and materiel continue to be sought.
A possible formal NATO mission in Iraq, on the other hand, is not expected to be raised prominently today, although tentative plans have begun to surface.