Brussels, 26 February 1999 (RFE/RL) -- The presidents of Poland and the Czech Republic are due to sign accession documents today that will move their nations one step closer to full membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).
The signings by the Czech Republic's Vaclav Havel and Poland's Aleksander Kwasniewski will be conducted simultaneously in their two capitals, with live television linking the ceremonies.
Hungarian President Arpad Goencz signed his country's accession document earlier this month (Feb. 10).
NATO spokesman Jamie Shea , speaking this week at NATO headquarters in Brussels, noted that the Poles, Hungarians and Czechs will legally join NATO ahead of an alliance summit in Washington April 23-25. They will become members from March 12, when they deposit their parliamentary ratification papers at the town of Independence, Missouri, with U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
The entry of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic will boost NATO's membership from 16 to 19 nations. Since the three are all former Warsaw Pact adversaries, the April summit will have a key symbolic dimension, serving as a landmark in post-Cold War relations.
The decision to invite the three to open ratification talks was taken by the Madrid summit of NATO heads of state and government in July, 1997. The protocols of accession were signed soon after.
NATO's Shea says that the Washington summit will produce "a mission statement" about the alliance's future role and responsibilities, as well as consider future expansion:
"Of course, we want it not just to be a celebration of NATO's past. We want it also to be a kind of mission statement about what NATO will be doing in future. Of the main items on the agenda, the first one will be the enlargement of NATO."
Nine countries are hoping to join the Poles, Czechs and Hungarians in winning membership: Albania, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Slovakia, Slovenia, and Romania.
Shea emphasized that no decisions have been made:
"Of course, in Washington, we will have to consider the future of enlargement, if to invite new members to join, when and who. But that discussion is still going on in the alliance, and I don't know what the decision will be yet. However, one thing is certain, whether we invite other countries in Washington to join or not, we will agree on a so-called Madrid-plus package."
The Madrid-plus package will offer the nine candidate countries from Central and Eastern Europe an accelerated program of preparation to allow them to prepare for membership if this is offered. Shea said this will help them with defense planning and restructuring and bring them closer to NATO so they can quickly bring themselves up to the military and other standards required for membership.
Shea said the other main item on the agenda for the Washington summit, aside from enlargement, will be the outlining of a new strategic concept to guide NATO into the 21st century. He said NATO has to bring its strategic concept -- the current one dates back to 1991 -- into line with the new developments in Europe.
First, he said, NATO needs to define its future role in peacekeeping and peace support operations. Second, it needs to deal with new challenges, like the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, including nuclear, biological and chemical proliferation.
He said NATO needs to define its future planning requirements -- including what kind of military forces it needs -- in order to deal with "a wider spectrum of tasks" than was the case in the Cold War.
Shea said that NATO also needs to give itself a wider European focus, promoting "the European role, so we move in future towards a more balanced partnership as equals with North America."
He said this is particularly relevant in view of the fact that the Europeans are looking to develop a common responsibility for foreign, security and defense questions, and are moving to further integrate their economies with the adoption of the Euro.
Shea said a greater European role is in the interests of NATO because the alliance needs to have a structure in future where it can handle crises on its periphery, with only limited or no U.S. participation.
Shea said there is another key priority for the Washington summit -- to show that NATO today is no longer a community of 16 or 19 allies, but has expanded into a "much-larger Pan European, even Euro-Atlantic security community".
He noted that 44 countries now meet around the table at NATO's headquarters as members of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council, founded in Sintra, Portugal, in May, 1997. This council includes Russia and Ukraine. The council aims to strengthen political and military cooperation.
In addition, 27 countries have joined NATO's Partnership for Peace program, aimed at developing a new security relationship between former Cold War adversaries. PFP membership now extends, in the east, to Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
Shea said NATO's goal today is to build security for everyone in the Euro-Atlantic area, "partner and ally alike, where the differences between allies and partners are becoming smaller."