Brussels, May 6 (RFE/RL) - Wandering around the NATO military headquarters SHAPE last Saturday, it was difficult to believe that Poland was not yet a member of the Alliance.
It seemed as if the Poles had taken over the place. The white and red Polish national flags were everywhere. A Polish military band played. Stalls in the grounds served grilled sausages, traditional hunter's stew and plenty of Zywiec beer. NATO personnel and their families bought Polish handicrafts and other souvenirs. And one couple got the chance to experience even more:they won a weekend holiday in Poland.
But the Alliance's membership has not yet changed. The event, which attracted about 3000 people, was a celebration of Poland's National Day commemorating the 205th anniversary of the first Polish constitution.
It was the first time a non-member's national day has been marked in this way and the exercise in self-promotion was a further step in Poland's campaign for membership of the Alliance. "We wanted to bring Poland closer to NATO and NATO closer to Poland," a Polish official explained.
Like many other would-be members, Poland appears to operate on the principle that if you behave as though you were a member, actual membership becomes more plausible for everyone concerned. The message seemed to get through.
General Peter Carstens, chief of staff of the NATO forces in Europe, described it as a unique opportunity for many of those who serve and work at SHAPE and know very little about Poland to get better aquatinted with the country.
And to make sure the message was received back home, the festivities were beamed live from SHAPE, about 60 km south of Brussels, to Poland by state television and by one of the country's most popular private radio stations.
Other would-be NATO members were clearly impressed, and perhaps a little bit envious, of Poland's latest coup in the undeclared contest to be first into the Alliance. "We can't compete with you straight away, we have to wait now a little bit before we take our turn," joked one of their ambassadors.
The focus on Central Europe continues in Brussels this week. On Monday, Bulgaria was due to begin its individual dialogue with NATO, a process which would-be members see as a starting point for enlargement negotiations. Poland does the same on Tuesday and Hungary on Wednesday, with the Czech Republic scheduled for May 22. Slovenia and Slovakia have already held their first meetings.
There was a serious political side to Poland's presence at SHAPE too. A high-powered delegation from Warsaw, led by Foreign Minister Dariusz Rosati and including former prime ministers, foreign ministers and defence ministers from across Poland's political spectrum, took part in panels and discussions on Friday.
The message was unmistakable: membership of NATO was the goal not just of one party or one government, but of the whole country. NATO officials responded with encouraging noises.
The Alliance's Deputy Secretary-General, Sergio Balanzino, asked about a recent U.S. Congressional study which put the cost of enlargement at between 60 and 120 thousand million dollars over 15 years, played down the financial issue. He reminded the panel of an old Italian saying that being run by accountants and lawyers was the worst of all possible worlds.
The warmth and goodwill, however, are not likely to alter NATO's timetable for pursuing the issue of enlargement, any more than they were able to chase away the clouds and chill breezes from SHAPE on Saturday.
Consideration of which countries will be in the first wave of new members, and when that will come, is not due at least until the end of this year, although all the signs now point to Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic as the front-runners in that race.
Before then, there are elections in Russia and the United States to negotiate. And the Poles have work to do closer to home in aligning their military structures to those of NATO and reinforcing the political and democratic control over the armed forces. Some estimates say the exercise could cost up to 1.5 thousand millions dollars a year until 2010, rather more than was spent on Saturday's jamboree.