Foreign ministers to discuss NATO enlargement
Officials considering inviting Croatia, Albania and Macedonia.
Brussels -- NATO's foreign ministers will meet in Brussels on Thursday to discuss whether to invite Croatia, Albania and Macedonia into the alliance and strengthen ties with other Western Balkan states.
But ministers were also expected to hear US and Canadian calls for more soldiers to be sent to Afghanistan and debate a new overall strategy for the country, officials said.
The three Balkan states are all part of NATO's Membership Action Plan (MAP), the final step before membership proper.
While there is broad consensus within the alliance that all three have fulfilled their technical requirements, the biggest obstacle to membership is of a political nature.
Macedonia, in particular, faces opposition from Greece, which objects to its official name by arguing that it could imply claims on the northern Greek province of Macedonia and could therefore destabilize the region.
Macedonia is referred to within NATO as the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
On Monday, NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoops Scheffer traveled to Athens and expressed hope that a solution would be found before the alliance holds its annual summit in Bucharest next month.
"Those countries that want and aspire to enter the door of NATO should perform and this depends on consensus within all 26 countries within NATO," de Hoop Scheffer said at the time.
But Greek Foreign Minister Dora Bakoyianni retorted that there was "no doubt" that Greece would "not relinquish any of its membership rights."
One senior NATO diplomat said Tuesday that if the Macedonia dispute were resolved, it would boost the chances of all three applicants being invited.
Ministers were also expected to discuss the membership aspirations of Georgia and Ukraine, which are both engaged in Intensified Dialogue - a precursor to MAP - with NATO.
But Ukraine's ambitions are hampered by the fact that public support for NATO membership in the country is limited. Meanwhile, France, Germany, Italy and other European members are sceptical about Georgia's prospects because of frozen conflicts in the region.
Another topic of discussion is whether to strengthen ties with Bosnia and Montenegro, which joined NATO's Partnership for Peace alongside Serbia in late 2006.
That corner of Europe is a delicate spot for NATO, which has a 16,000-strong security force in Kosovo, the predominantly ethnic- Albanian province which last month declared independence from Serbia.
Though officials insist Thursday's is not a force generation meeting, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was expected to repeat US calls for allies to send more troops to Afghanistan.
She was expected to be supported by Canada, which has threatened to pull its 2,500 troops out of the dangerous Kandahar region unless other NATO members send substantial reinforcements.
But as a diplomat from one European country pointed out: "We have seen that force generation by megaphone does not work."
Thursday's meeting will prepare the groundwork for the alliance's annual summit, which is due to take place in Bucharest on April 2-4.
DPA with Expatica
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