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NATO: Leaders Grapple With Expansion And Restructuring

Madrid, 8 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Top leaders of all 16 NATO countries today focused their discussion on two themes: the scope of the eastward expansion of the alliance and its internal restructuring.

Two clear positions on enlargement have emerged. One, forcefully presented by U.S. President Bill Clinton and strongly supported by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, was an assertion that the alliance invite only three Central European countries to open membership negotiations at this time.

The other, articulated by French President Jacques Chirac and shared by several other countries, was rooted in a claim that five Central and East European countries fulfill at the present time conditions regarded as necessary for membership, and all should be invited. Both positions were clearly articulated weeks ago and maintained ever since.

Following a series of individual addresses in which heads of state presented their views and a brief discussion that was described by a ranking French official as "quite vigorous," foreign ministers were asked to prepare a "compromise" document to be released later in the day. NATO's political decisions are taken by consensus.

This is likely to be a limited "compromise," however. According to British and French officials who requested anonymity, only three countries - the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland - will be invited by the summit to open membership negotiations.

But there is also a strong possibility that Romania and Slovenia, the two countries championed by France and other NATO European members, could be mentioned in the final document as "strong contenders" for the second wave of invitations to be issued not earlier than 1999.

Britain is said to be critical of that approach, however, arguing that no promises or decisions concerning the second wave should be offered at this time. Prime Minister Blair was reported to have specifically said at today's opening session that "NATO is a serious military alliance and not a political club." He went on to say that NATO should first see whether political and economic reforms in candidate countries are "irreversible because, once offered, the membership in NATO is also irreversible."

President Clinton reiterated that position, using almost identical language. The president then went on to say that there is a need for "a new partnership between the North American (U. S. , Canada) members and the European allies to ensure better cooperation and better sharing of responsibility."

This theme of a "new balance of responsibility" within the alliance was strongly supported by President Chirac. He explicitly warned that NATO could be severely weakened unless major "adjustments were made in the command structure and decision-making" of the alliance.

But all leaders have repeatedly stressed the need to maintain cooperation among all members of the Euro-Atlantic alliance. They have also stressed that considerable progress has already been achieved in creating a "European identity" within NATO's political organization. France has decided not to re-join NATO's military command structure for the time being. But Chirac has repeatedly said during the discussions that negotiations between Paris and NATO on all aspects of military and political cooperation will continue.

The first day of summit discussion will end with a formal announcement of the scope of current enlargement. The announcement will probably also deal in some fashion with the timing and method of the second wave of invitations to be extended to some of the Central and Eastern European countries.