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Europe: Conference Tackles New Agenda For Trans-Atlantic Relations

By David Swanson

Istanbul, 4 May 1998 (RFE/RL) -- More than 400 statesmen, policy makers, bureaucrats and economists from 20 countries, gathered in Istanbul over the weekend to discuss the new agenda for trans-Atlantic relations.

The New Atlantic Initiative Conference (NAI) has met annually, since being set up in Prague in 1996. The NAI's professed goal is commitment to reinvigorating and expanding the community of democracies, while strengthening the cultural, political, and economic bonds that unite the European continent and link it to America.

A statement read at the conference from Britain's Prime Minister, Tony Blair referred to the trans-Atlantic relationship as "an unrivaled axis of stability in the world."

In an interview with RFE/RL, Jeffrey Gedmin, Executive Director of the New Atlantic Initiative, described this year's conference as a "political and intellectual exercise."

"Our effort," Gedmin said, "is not so much to give conclusions, as to realize a diversity of ideas that make people think."

Some of the subjects discussed at the Istanbul Congress were 'Atlanticism, Islam and the Role of Turkey;' 'Broadening the Atlantic Perspective: Politics of Oil, Water and Pipelines;' 'The Atlantic Community in 2012 - A debate of three Scenarios; 'Institutions and Atlantic Challenges;' and, 'Is a Federal Europe Compatible with Atlanticism; and Can Atlantic Unity Ensure Security in the Middle East?'

The conference featured panel discussions of possible scenarios for European security over the next fifteen years.

In light of last week's U.S. Senate ratification of the expansion of NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, NATO was of particular interest to many at this year's congress, which reaffirmed its "Declaration of Atlantic Principles." These principals," include: "In political life, all good things rest ultimately upon our willingness to defend them. Our cultural and economic community will only be secure if it is allied to a diplomatic partnership and common security. The NATO alliance is today the expression of Atlantic partnership and the guarantor of our common security."

According to Gedmin, who views NATO expansion as "morally, politically, and strategically correct," the congress of Prague in 1996, "helped push NATO expansion down the track." Gedmin noted the first congress was attended by the likes of Britain's Margaret Thatcher and Czech Republic President Vaclav Havel.

In a message sent to the conference, Leszek Balcerowicz, Poland's Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister, said, "our accession to NATO, however, is not the end of the work that we must undertake. Now, it is up to the countries of Central Europe to demonstrate in practical terms that they will be worthy members of the Atlantic Alliance, prepared to shoulder their share of responsibility and to be a strengthening force within NATO."

In another message sent to the congress - this one from Lady Thatcher - she looked ahead, saying, "the extension of NATO to other East European democracies in due course is one step. But, more is needed. We must now look ahead to the creation of a free-trading Atlantic Economic Community, flexible enough to embrace America and the whole of Europe."

In holding this year's congress in Istanbul - often referred to as having one foot in Europe and the other in Asia - observers say the NAI was sending a message to Turkey's political leadership, that, though Turkey may have been denied entrance into the European Union last December, the New Atlantic Initiative recognizes the country's importance to the Atlantic Community, and beyond. Turkey's Foreign Minister Ismail Cem told conference participants that EU membership is no longer on Turkey's agenda. Cem said, "we don't intend to stand on the doorstep of the EU waiting to be invited in."