Madrid, 8 July 1997 (RFE/RL) - NATO heads of state meeting in Madrid today formally extended invitations to Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary to begin accession talks. NATO Secretary General Javier Solana, accompanied by heads of state, read a communique which said the alliance will next review the expansion process in 1999.
The communique also praised Romania and Slovenia for positive developments toward democracy. It also notes what it called "progress toward greater stability and cooperation" in the Baltic region.
Solana, reading from the communique, said the goal is for accession talks with today's three invitees to conclude in late 1997 and for them to officially join the alliance in 1999. He also said the alliance will continue to welcome new members.
The decision to invite just three new members was reached after what NATO officials said were intense, sometimes passionate talks among the NATO leaders. Several NATO states, led by France, had pressed first for Romania and Slovenia to also be invited today and then for them to be offered assurances that they would be invited in a second round.
The United States and Britain, however, insisted that only three states be invited today and resisted attempts to make specific promises regarding future invitations.
U.S. President Bill Clinton, speaking in Madrid shortly after NATO leaders invited Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic to begin accession talks, called today a very great day for the cause of freedom.
Clinton said the NATO announcement marked what he called a giant stride toward a Europe undivided and at peace -- conditions which he said have never prevailed in the history of the continent.
Clinton said that the announced expansion is not an American achievement, but rather represented a genuine consensus among NATO leaders. He praised Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, saying that they had worked hard to secure freedom over the last seven years and said they are ready for NATO membership. He also said they had offered a good example to other states in central and eastern Europe with their commitment to free markets, democracy and the settling of what he called "ancient quarrels."
Clinton today also called a NATO-Russia agreement signed earlier this year and one due to be signed between the alliance and Ukraine tomorrow "historic."