Spain in NATO: to join or not to join

Generalissimo Francisco Franco's shadow still hovers over Spain as the Parliament debates whether the country should join NATO. The Atlantic Alliance represents primarily a framework for the United States military presence in Europe, and the US is widely suspected in Spain because of defense ties with the Franco regime going back to 1953.

As it works its way toward democracy, Spain is eager to shake off the memory of that period. It might perhaps have been wiser under the circumstances for the country to wait a bit longer before committing itself were it not for a factor that is forcing a decision. The current Spanish-American security treaty is due to expire this year.

The Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo government considers NATO membership a primary goal. It sees a committed Spain ending an isolation dating from the Civil War over 40 years ago. Under the Franco regime Spain lived closed within itself, apart from the international community. Membership in the United Nations meant no more than a partial opening on the world.

The Spanish government hopes that NATO will smooth the way to the European Economic Community, a road still scattered with serious obstacles. Appealing to a nationalistic pride ever present in Spain, backers of the alliance present it as a perhaps decisive factor in solving the problem of Gibraltar. British agreement last year to negotiate the future of the famous rock has not been implemented, and in reprisal King Juan Carlos refused to attend Prince Charles's marriage in London.

Protection of possessions whose future causes concern is a further factor. The government was caught unaware by the Organization of African Unity resolution supporting independence for the Canary Islands, an Atlantic link of great strategic importance. The same concern extends to Spanish enclaves in North Africa.

Some have argued that Spain's mission being Mediterranean its strategy should point in that direction. But for Antonio Sanchez-Gijon, a distinguished Spanish defense correspondent, a ''Mediterranean option'' makes little sense because ''the Mediterranean does not constitute in itself an interesting strategic unit.'' He adds: ''The Western Mediterranean appears . . . as an interior sea in relation to the Atlantic. On the other hand, when one looks toward the East, the Mediterranean appears as an appendage of the Middle East,'' a second strategic pivot.

A consideration of more than Spanish significance is the Soviet Union's reaction. Moscow has stated repeatedly, and confirmed in a recent note, that Spain's membership in NATO would alter the balance of power in Europe. It cannot be excluded that in order to restore the balance, Moscow might undertake initiatives leading to a serious crisis.

The Soviets have mentioned by way of ''compensation'' a return of Yugoslavia within the East European sphere of influence. Albania, too, is being actively wooed. Success in either direction would imply a direct Soviet access to the Mediterranean. A Soviet presence across the Adriatic would threaten further instability in Italy at a time when, because of the dangerous situation in the Middle East, the Naples-based NATO southern command has acquired an unprecedented strategic importance.

Within Spain the opposition to the project is primarily political. Apart from the pacifists and neutralists who are well represented, especially among the intelligentsia, the main anti-NATO thrust is carried by the left. The Spanish Communist Party under Santiago Carrillo has hardened its position following the now open split between Eurocommunists and pro-Soviets. In Spain, as in Italy, the party's rank and file are far more pro-Moscow than the leadership. On issues affecting strategic power the communists, whether ''Euro'' or not, rediscover their primal fealty.

According to Eurocommunist doctrine, military blocs must eventually wither away. They may be inevitable in the present world circumstances, but nothing must be made to strengthen them (except to close the eyes when the advantage is on the Soviet side). Carrillo has said he favors a Europe militarily and economically integrated as an alternative to the blocs.

Spain's main opposition party, the Socialists, is also against the NATO connection but for reasons of a quite different nature. Its leader, Felipe Gonzalez, believes that Spain could play a far greater role by projecting its image in the third world than by becoming a prisoner of power politics. Spain, he feels, should become a bridge between Europe and the Arab world, Africa, and Latin America instead of being caught in the East-West web of conflicts.

Gonzalez also fears that NATO membership would increase the power of the Spanish military and consequently the threat to the country's democratic institutions. He hopes that the issue may be decided by referendum, and the party has begun collecting the 500,000 signatures required by the constitution.

The Socialists appear to reflect the popular mood, if we are to credit a recent Gallup poll showing that 39 percent of those questioned oppose Spanish membership in NATO as against 27 percent in favor, the balance having no opinion.

The Spanish government is confident that it can muster sufficient votes in Parliament to bring Spain into NATO by next year, but the transition may not be without friction

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