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NATO: Robertson Seeks Closer Ties With Islamic Mediterranean Countries

NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson has called for closer ties between the alliance and the mostly Islamic states of the Mediterranean region. In a speech in London, Robertson said European and Mediterranean security are linked, and it is time to recognize that. His speech followed the Valencia summit of the European Union and the southern Mediterranean states, which came to a similar conclusion.

Prague, 30 April 2002 -- NATO Secretary-General Lord George Robertson has called for an intensification of cooperation between the alliance and the mostly Islamic countries around the Mediterranean rim.

In a speech yesterday in London, Robertson set out his vision for a radical strengthening of ties with the Mediterranean region, modeled in part on the way NATO has developed relations with the Central and East European countries in the past decade.

He said the Mediterranean region matters to NATO because of the potential for escalating instability there. He noted the region features many unresolved political, social, and religious issues, which make it particularly prone to the menace of terrorism. Without a coherent strategy to combat terrorism, neither the NATO allies nor their southern partners can be secure.

Robertson stressed that he was putting forward his own personal views, but Brussels-based senior security analyst Marc Houben sees his remarks pointing the way to a "new NATO." Houben, of the Centre for European Policy Studies, said, "The bottom line with this speech, for me, is that it means that a new NATO is born."

Houben said the last few years have been difficult for the NATO alliance, which has been undergoing a transformation following the end of the Cold War. The old NATO, having lost its main enemy, the Soviet Union, was declared dead by many people, and the new NATO had not yet been born, as he put it. Robertson's speech was clearly a manifestation of what directions a new NATO could take, Houben said.

"Clearly this speech and the contents of this speech will be a topic at the summit in Reykjavik [Iceland] in mid-May, and [Robertson] acts as an important agenda setter, and he guides and explores different possibilities," Houben said.

A spokesman for Robertson said in London that the NATO summit in Prague in November will announce new steps to strengthen ties with the Mediterranean region.

There has been a dialogue between the alliance and a number of Mediterranean countries since 1994, and NATO characterizes this as useful, but suggests that it has had limited results. In his speech, Robertson said that after the 11 September terror attacks on the United States, the two sides can no longer afford to neglect each other. He called for them to become real partners facing common challenges, such as terrorism and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.

The secretary-general suggested increased military cooperation and a more focused dimension of political and practical contacts. He said consideration should be given to involving interested Mediterranean countries in some of the activities of the Euro-Atlantic Partnership Council. That's the forum that was created to develop links between the alliance and the transition countries of Eastern Europe. He stopped short of suggesting, however, that any of the Mediterranean countries might eventually become NATO members.

For analyst Houben, Robertson's remarks indicate that as the continuing European expansion of NATO reaches its eventual conclusion, attention will be turned southward to the Mediterranean. But he sees the process as taking time.

"I don't think things will move dead quickly, because NATO needs, in my opinion, a number of years to absorb and to live through the shocks of absorbing these new European members, and to create a balanced alliance requires political energy, time, and a lot of money," Houben said.

In view of this factor, Houben sees European expansion and the development of ties with the Mediterranean as progressing on parallel tracks for some years.