For countries denied membership in NATO at the Madrid summit this month, the prospect of joining the European Union offers an attractive alternative.
But while as many as half-a-dozen states could be added to the EU, the process may take as long as a decade. The interval between initial talks and actual acceptance to the union will be quite long.
NATO's goal is to celebrate its 50th anniversary in 1999 by admitting Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic, the three countries invited at the meeting in early July to begin filling out membership applications.
The EU's "Agenda 2000" talks of an "enlarged union by 2006."
Leaders of both NATO and the EU use every public opportunity to emphasize that there are no links between the expansion of the two organizations.
"There is no tendency of EU's expansion to coincide with NATO's enlargement," EU Ambassador to Washington Hugo Paemen said after Brussels' decision to invite five East European countries to start accession talks.
A connection, though, inevitably exists: Both processes involve almost the same countries.
The European Commission, the EU's executive body, has proposed expansion to include the three NATO candidates plus Slovenia and Estonia; a decision to open talks with Cyprus had already been made.
The commission also said the EU's door remains open, raising hopes in Bulgaria, Romania, Slovakia, Latvia and Lithuania that they may find their way into the EU before they can join NATO.
This chance is quite significant for the Baltic states, for whom it means more than economic cooperation with Western Europe. For the former Soviet republics, belonging to a Western institution has security undertones. "The trading partnerships of Western countries with their Eastern neighbors will require security guarantees as well. When you are doing business with another country, you don't want to see it disrupted," Barbara Conry, foreign policy adviser at Cato Institute, told The Washington Times. …