Madrid, 10 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - Top leaders of all 16 NATO members states met yesterday in Madrid with representatives - most of whom were also heads of state or government - of 28 other countries to set up the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council (EAPC). The new organization is to provide an important element in an emerging new European security system, alongside an expanded NATO and the Organization of Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE).
The move followed NATO's decision made public Tuesday to open a process of eastward expansion by inviting the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland to begin accession negotiations. The process is to continue in the years to come, after the first entries are evaluated by the alliance at its 50th anniversary summit in April 1999.
NATO has said repeatedly that in order to qualify for membership, candidates must maintain a firm attachment to democratic values, preserve civilian control over military forces and demonstrate economic ability to meet the cost.
But NATO's long-term concerns go beyond the expansion. The alliance has been generally recognized as an organization ensuring security for all Europe and having a major impact on international politics elsewhere. The establishment of the EAPC testifies to that. So do the efforts of such countries as Russia and Ukraine to develop a stable cooperative relationship with the alliance. Russia signed a formal agreement, the Founding Act, with NATO in May in Paris. Today, a similar agreement was signed by Ukraine and NATO in Madrid.
The Madrid summit was remarkable for its spirit of cooperation. It followed several weeks of passionate discussion, when questions of enlargement and NATO's internal organization were openly debated by leaders of specific countries. These discussions continued in Madrid, but all eventual decisions were taken unanimously, confirming latent consensus of fundamental principles of understanding and cooperation that have underlined NATO's operations throughout its 48-year history.
There are, of course, persisting differences of view within the alliance on such issues as a definition of a relationship between the United States, the dominant partner in the organization, and some European countries which would like to see the role of the "old continent" somewhat enhanced.
But there is also an overriding agreement that the essential value of the alliance is the providing a stable and recognized framework for the Euro-Atlantic political and military bond. For NATO members, this bond is the essential guarantee of security and peace rooted in shared democratic values.
This is the essential message of the Madrid summit. The expansion of the alliance, which has been actively pursued by numerous Central and Eastern European countries - 12 of them have formally applied for membership - and the establishment of new links with other Eastern states through the EAPC confirms the vitality and the continuing attractiveness of this essentially Western organization to other nations.
The next NATO summit is to take place in April 1999. It will mark the half century of the alliance.