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Spain's NATO Vote Leaves Little Cause for Rejoicing

March 18, 1986|HUGH DE SANTIS | Hugh DeSantis is a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

The decision of the Spanish electorate to sustain Spain's membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization represents a major political victory for Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez. As far as the interests of the United States and the alliance are concerned, however, the outcome of the March 12 referendum is hardly cause for rejoicing as long as Spain remains outside the NATO military structure. Such a course is likely to aggravate the tendency in Western Europe to create an alliance a la carte.

Still, Washington was relieved by the results of the referendum. Spanish pollsters had forecast a negative vote; that more than 52% of the Spanish people would support NATO membership was totally unexpected.

Having kept his 1982 election promise to hold a referendum on NATO, Gonzalez enhanced his domestic political stature and dealt a blow to opposition forces, particularly on the left. In winning his referendum gamble, Gonzalez has succeeded both in cementing Spain's political and economic integration with Western Europe (it formally joined the European Economic Community in January) and in fostering the course of democracy in Spain. The loser was the coalition of anti-NATO and anti-U.S. forces, led by the Spanish Communist Party, that had lobbied vigorously against the referendum and the Socialist government. The reported high voter turnout of about 60% also represents a setback for the conservative Alianza Popular of Manuel Fraga. Although the conservatives have consistently supported Spanish accession to NATO, they advocated a boycott of the referendum in the hope of toppling Gonzalez from power.

As matters now stand, Gonzalez's smashing domestic success may not have much of a payoff for NATO; indeed, his gains may be the alliance's loss. To be sure, the Spanish public's pro-NATO vote delivers a clear message to Moscow that its wedge-driving tactics have failed again. It also reduces the probability that other members of the alliance such as Greece and Denmark will hold referendums, at least anytime soon, to renegotiate their terms of membership in NATO or to leave it altogether.

Nonetheless, the conditions that the Gonzalez government attached to the referendum in order to obtain the favorable outcome may have made the victory a Pyrrhic one for the alliance. According to these conditions, Spain would keep its forces outside NATO's command, continue its ban on the stationing of nuclear weapons on Spanish soil and negotiate a "progressive" reduction of U.S. troops in the country.

Spain's refusal to join the military wing of NATO (the French model) and its position on nuclear weapons (the same as Denmark's and Norway's) undermines the very purpose of NATO as a shared security undertaking. To the likes of Petra Kelly, a leader of the West German Green party who exhorted the anti-NATO crusade in Spain, membership in the alliance is tantamount to subjugation to the United States. Such rhetoric is inaccurate and irresponsible. While U.S. leadership of the alliance has been far from perfect, it is our continued presence in Europe and the nuclear guarantee that we provide that have kept our Atlantic partners free of subjugation--to the Soviet Union.

It is not inconceivable, of course, that Gonzalez will yet accede to some form of military integration in NATO, perhaps with cosmetic reservations to mollify obstructionist elements in Spain, in exchange for U.S. troop reductions. One suspects that the politically agile Gonzalez will handle these arrangements in the same deliberate, purposeful manner in which he prepared the way for the referendum.

In any event, it is unlikely that Gonzalez will resolve the issue of military integration before Spanish national elections later this year. When the matter is addressed, it might be advisable for the Reagan Administration to have the European allies take the lead, to limit the negative exposure that the United States might otherwise receive in Spain.

In the end, of course, Spain and other would-be part-time allies must understand that in a partnership one must share the obligations if one is to receive the benefits. Acceptance of this principle by the Gonzalez government would permit everyone in the alliance to benefit from the Spanish referendum.

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