London, 13 November 1996 (RFE/RL) -- Latvian President Guntis Ulmanis says the Baltic states must be given equal treatment to other Central/Eastern European countries in their bid to join the European Union (EU) or it will send a dangerous signal to anti-democratic forces in the region.
Ulmanis told the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London last night that all candidate members for the 15-nation EU should be given "equal opportunities on the starting line."
"Separation of candidates before the political decision on admission is passed would mean an incorrect and dangerous signal...," he said.
He said any decision to give some countries precedence over others "would provide an excellent argument for anti-European and anti-democratic forces in Central and Eastern Europe." He did not elaborate.
Ulmanis spoke on the second day of a five-day visit to Britain in which he is pressing the case for admission to both the EU and Nato. He stressed tonight: "We see no alternative to this course of action." Western officials have said the front-runners to join both Western groupings are the transitional countries that have travelled furthest on the road to reform -- the Czech Republic, Poland and Hungary.
Ulmanis said EU membership for the Baltic states is "fundamental to the process of European integration" and a "test of European unity". He said the consolidation of the independence of the Baltic countries depends on membership of both the EU and NATO. But he acknowledged that accession negotiations to both groupings will be "lengthy."
Ulmanis said it sometimes seems that future European security rests on the question of whether the large West European powers will "condescend" to admit new members to the EU and Nato. He added: "Why has the decision on Latvia's admission not been passed yet?"
However, he said Latvia welcomes the U.S.-proposed 'Baltic Charter' and 'Baltic Action Plan' which it regards as a first step to NATO admission. "NATO membership for Latvia, as for other Central and East European nations, is in the vital interests of Europe and the U.S."
He went on: "President Clinton recently emphasized that America will become stronger as the family of democratic nations grows larger.
"It is this consolidation of democratic nations which defines the political goal and legitimacy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
"The legal foundation for NATO expansion is to be found in the expression of sovereign will of the candidates."
Ulmanis said Latvians were "shocked" when US Defense Secretary William Perry said recently that the Baltic states could not be among the first wave of candidate members joining NATO in 1999. Ulmanis said: "I hope we don't get a similar shock in the United Kingdom."
Ulmanis will have talks with British Prime Minister John Major today that are expected to focus on NATO and EU membership. Britain has generally supported moves to widen both the EU and NATO.
Questioned, Ulmanis said he agrees with Czech President Vaclav Havel that membership of NATO should take priority over the EU.
He also said that developments in Russia, as it seeks a new identity, remain important to the destiny of the Baltic countries. But the Baltics would never accept that they are a part of Russia's 'sphere of influence.'
He said: "The basis for our relations with Russia is the West European concept of neighborly relations."