• 2001-08-02
By throwing all his weight behind the Baltics' candidacies for NATO membership during his visit to Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia last week, French President Jacques Chirac has swung the argument in Europe for enlargement in a new direction.

Before, European leaders were afraid to tread on Russia's toes. Now, thanks to this precedent set by Chirac in firm, comprehensible words rather than the Western political rhetoric Baltic leaders are used to, they're going to find it hard not to.

The French leader's visit passed by with surprisingly brief commentary in the local press. This was precisely because rhetoric based around familiarly vague if's and maybe's was what was expected. Promises veiled in such terms are no longer interesting.

But, following hot on the heels of U.S. President George W. Bush's pro-expansion speeches during his whirlwind European tour in June, Chirac has finally decided to take the initiative in Europe. The people of the Baltic states have long memories, and Chirac will now join Bush in the growing rostrum of world leaders much revered for showing the region some long-overdue respect.

France is the first nation in Western Europe to endorse the enlargement of NATO to the Baltic states. Britain, whether led by the current Labor government or the opposition Conservative Party, so often takes its foreign policy leads from the United States, and is highly unlikely to vote against the Americans on Baltic membership in NATO at next year's summit.

Which leaves Germany, well-known - in official circles if not on the street - to favor broadening the European Union as a security alternative to expanding NATO and annoying Berlin's friends in Moscow.

In some ways, Chirac is recognizing the inevitable, now that the U.S. seems to have openly declared its determination that the Baltics become NATO members.

But certainly, the French position will make it increasingly uncomfortable for official Berlin to resist the shift in favor of enlargement. The trend coincides with widespread frustration in Central and Eastern Europe over the protracted EU membership negotiations, which for many look like a never-ending process. Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn each have their own love-hate relationships with Brussels.

Of course, Chirac's support for Baltic accession would not be possible without the enormous progress the three countries have shown with their political and economic reforms and in their progressive defense policies - including membership action plans, peacekeeping missions in the Balkans and various war games. So in many ways, the fact that Chirac has finally relented to the idea of Baltic membership in NATO is also down to the perseverance and patience of ordinary people in the Baltic states themselves.