The Nato summit yesterday made it clear that Partnership for Peace (PFP), a new alliance initiative, is linked to the prospect of membership. 'We expect and would welcome Nato expansion that would reach to democratic states to our east, as part of an evolutionary process, taking into account political and security developments in the whole of Europe,' said a document setting out the plan.
Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary head the list of states being considered as new members, officials said yesterday in Brussels, and this was signalled by John Major. 'The Poles, Czechs and Hungarians are European peoples with fast-developing democracies and a strong claim to membership,' the Prime Minister told the summit.
No date has been set for membership, and Britain insists that no decisions must be made yet that tie Nato's hands. Other states, though not ruled out from entry, will be at different stages in a 'multi-speed process', said the sources.
Slovakia, the fourth Visegrad state, has not indicated as much interest in membership, and its political and economic structures make it a less likely candidate, officials said. 'It's a rather different kettle of fish from, say, the Czech Republic,' said a British source. 'There's a rather different timetable.'
For the moment, though the alliance has said it expects and welcomes new members, it has gone no further than to open PFP, the US intitiative that will create military and political pacts between Nato and Eastern Europe. Yesterday, heads of government and state agreed the initiative, and opened invitations to former Soviet-bloc
states that are interested in pursuing relations with the alliance.
British government sources refused to speculate on when new states might accede, saying it depended on a range of factors including their pace of entry into the European Union. However, it was possible that some elements of a timetable might emerge this year, they said.
The alliance's 16 members had disagreed about how fast to proceed with opening up Nato, with some arguing initially that to extend the possibility would undermine Boris Yeltsin and antagonise Russia.
But the election of Mr Zhirinovsky and evidence of a Russian turn to expansionism tipped the balance in favour of sending a strong signal, in London and Washington, the British sources said. 'There is a lot of sympathy for the Visegrad states.'
Yesterday Mr Zhirinovsky warned the alliance against enlargement, in his usual inflammatory tones. 'It would be a huge mistake and a tragedy for Nato, Europe and the whole world if they move to take in our neighbours,' he told reporters. 'This would mean Nato took the path of preparing for World War Three.'
A decision at this summit to open membership immediately to the three Central Europeans would simply have created a new line across Europe that effectively left the Baltic states, for instance, in a Russian sphere of influence, said officials. It was important to leave options open.
British sources said they expected Nato to start considering how rapidly new members could come into the alliance and what conditions must be met, this year. There will probably be a meeting of foreign ministers to discuss which countries are in which 'tracks'. This will follow the applications from PFP countries, stating what activities they are interested in and what resources they are prepared to devote.
There will also be an attempt to build a new strategic relationship with Russia, British and alliance sources said. This may include new cash, a new political dialogue, and assistance in dealing with its debt problems. In this way, policymakers hope to ease tensions between the West and Moscow, sustain Mr Yeltsin and assist reform.
British and US officials admitted that the move to open the alliance would not please Mr Yeltsin, but felt that the accompanying decisions - to bring Russia into PFP as well, assuming a tough posture against Ukraine, and promising future assistance - would soften the blow.
They have also been at pains to assert that Russia has no veto over alliance policymaking.
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