A potentially dangerous split threatens the unity of NATO ahead of its summit in Bucharest, which begins on Wednesday.
At issue, the question of whether or not to extend Membership Action Plans (MAP) to Georgia and Ukraine. MAPs are seen as the final step along the long road to joining NATO and as close to a guarantee of future membership as you can get.
US President George W. Bush has campaigned hard ahead of the summit in favour of the NATO ambitions of both but he is strongly opposed by France and Germany.
French Prime Minister François Fillon said today that France would oppose giving a ‘green light’ to the Georgian and Ukrainian MAP bids.
The geo-strategic implications are enormous – a point highlighted this week by Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili who says rejection of the bids would amount to appeasement of Russia, comparing it with the failure to confront Nazi Germany in the 1930s.
The divide within NATO over the issue has echoes of the split within Europe over the war in Iraq back in 2003, when the eastern and central Europeans – the so-called “new” Europe – lined up against France and Germany – the so-called “old Europe”.
Estonian President Toomas Ilves said this week that however the opponents of the bids liked to dress things up, the main reason for their opposition was a desire not to antagonize Russia. It’s a view strongly backed by almost all former members of the eastern bloc, who say the rejection would be tantamount to granting Moscow a veto over NATO policy.
The arguments in favour of membership are weakened though in the case of Ukraine by the opposition of the majority of the Ukrainian people and, in the case of Georgia, by two ‘frozen’ internal conflicts – in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.
The question of NATO loomed large for another reason in France today. While François Fillon moved to bloc the MAP bids of Georgia and Ukraine, he also moved to stymie opposition within the French parliament to President Sarkozy’s plans to send more troops to Afghanistan. France has long been under pressure to step up its contribution to the fight against the Taleban and it’s expected Sarkozy will announce the decision at the NATO conference in Bucharest.
In a recent opinion poll in France, 68 per cent of respondents said they opposed sending more troops to Afghanistan.