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Romania/Slovenia: NATO Membership Debate Continues

Munich, 3 June 1997 (RFE/RL) -- German political experts say an intensive debate is underway on whether NATO should accept only Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in the first round of expansion or also include Romania and Slovenia.

A Foreign Ministry spokesman in Bonn said today the outcome could be affected by the change of Government in France. French President Jacques Chirac and the previous center-right Government were among the strongest advocates of the inclusion of Romania and Slovenia.

"It is uncertain whether the new left-wing government will share these views," the German official said. "The other Allies have no information yet on France's future policy in regard to NATO."

NATO's expansion was the major theme at last week's conference of alliance foreign ministers in the Portuguese resort of Sintra. German officials say the discussion was considered so delicate that even advisors were excluded from some of the talks, leaving the Foreign Ministers to speak frankly among themselves.

Nine countries were later reported to have advocated widening the list of candidates to include Romania and Slovenia. They were France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece, Turkey, Belgium, Luxembourg and Canada.

The United States and Iceland are said to have argued strongly to limit the list to Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic in the first round. Five others apparently declined to come down on one side or the other at this time. They were Germany, Britain, Norway, the Netherlands and Denmark.

The task of making a recommendation falls on the shoulders of NATO's secretary general, Javier Solana. He is expected to circulate his proposals about 10 days before the NATO summit meeting in Madrid on July 8. A Foreign Ministry official in Bonn said today: "No one envies him the job."

Political experts briefed by the German Foreign Office said one of the arguments advanced by France and the Mediterranean countries was that the inclusion of Romania and Slovenia would bring more "balance" into NATO. They said that including only Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary would orient NATO too much towards the north of Europe.

Critics apparently replied that expansion should take place on a question of "need" rather than of political "balance."

Romania's foreign minister Adrian Severin, who has a reputation for taking a rosy view of Romania's position in international affairs, told correspondents in Sintra that the inclusion of Bucharest could strengthen NATO's vulnerable southern flank.

Slovenia's foreign minister Zoran Thaler said his country fulfills all the criteria established by NATO two years ago and had a right to expect that it would be added to the candidates list along with Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

In an attempt to rebut arguments that Slovenia is small and would contribute little to NATO's military strength, officials point out that both Luxembourg and Iceland are much smaller and no questions are raised about their right to be in NATO.

But as German political analysts point out, much of the debate among European governments is theoretical. The most powerful voice in the expansion debate is that of the United States, and not just the U.S. government.

The real power comes from the U.S. Congress, which has to ratify the inclusion of new members -- like the parliaments of all other current members. There are already some voices in the U.S. Congress expressing doubts and even skepticism about the value of widening NATO, particularly if the list grows beyond the original three.

Part of this is financial. "Membership of NATO does not come as a free gift. It costs quite a lot of money," a spokesman at NATO headquarters in Brussels said today.

Existing members would have to pay some of the costs but it will also be a financial burden on those joining -- and there is some uneasiness about how much these struggling economies can afford. Last month the Hungarian parliament held a debate on how much it could afford to join NATO. Poland and the Czech Republic have also heard public discussions on the costs of joining the Alliance.

In January this year a group of Polish experts estimated it would cost Poland $1.5 billion. This was the cost of participating in the Alliance and did not include the costs of modernization.

Various estimates have been offered in the United States. A 31-page report submitted to Congress in February this year estimated that including just three new members -- Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland -- would cost up to $35 billion over the next 12 years. It estimated that the U.S. contribution would be about $200 million a year.

The report anticipated that the three new NATO members would cover about 35 percent of enlargement costs, the United States would pay 15 percent and the other current members of NATO would contribute 50 percent.

But there have also been other American estimates which are considerably higher. One is that including just Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland could cost between $60 and $125 billion up to the year 2010.

These estimates would of course rise if the number of new members was increased from three to five. A respected German newspaper, the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (which generally favors expansion) recently quoted officials in Washington as saying that "if the Europeans want to include more countries in the first wave of expansion then they can pay for them themselves."

The financial costs lead some current members to question Romania's application to join. Romania's international reputation is that of a country undergoing considerable austerity as it struggles towards a limited level of prosperity for the mass of the population. Several critics have suggested that there are many more pressing needs in Romania than spending thousands of millions of dollars to join NATO.

German experts say that at the military level there are no questions about Romania. Its armed forces are widely accepted as well-trained, intelligent and capable.

NATO and German officials acknowledge that the unspoken question in the entire discussion over including Romania and Slovenia in the list of candidates is: What about the Baltic States? Will they be allowed to join, and when?

NATO officials say the position of the Baltics was discussed by the foreign ministers in Portugal last week, but they declined to provide any details.

German officials note that German foreign minister Klaus Kinkel declined to make a public statement when asked about the Baltics. However according to some reports, he told the other foreign ministers that the Madrid summit should issue a declaration that the security of NATO cannot be separated from the security of all Europe. According to these reports, Kinkel said NATO should underline that its policy is to support free people everywhere, including the Baltics.

A spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Nicholas Burns, said it was Washington's position that NATO should be open to all democratic states and the Baltic states had a right to seek membership. But he also gave little information about the concrete positions taken by NATO's foreign ministers.