Spain is on its way to a showdown over NATO membership. Months of speculation ended this week when Prime Minister Felipe Gonzalez, in his state of the nation address to parliament, set February 1986 as the date for first referendum on NATO to be held in a NATO country.
He stated his own position clearly: remain within the alliance, keep Spain's current status (it is not a member of the integrated military command), and seek a progressive reduction of US military forces and installations in Spain. It was this last point that caught everyone off guard.
The sensitive issue of reducing the US military presence started out as an innocuous electoral promise to rectify by referendum what was seen as a precipitate entry into NATO by the former centrist government in mid-1982. With its credibility at stake, the government could hardly afford to scrap the referendum.
But everyone is worried. Not only does Spain represent a vital geostrategic position for NATO, but a negative vote would have a destabilizing effect on East-West relations and come at a bad time for the alliance, which is plagued by internal disputes and continuing controversy over the stationing of Pershing II and cruise missiles in Europe.
A Spanish withdrawal from NATO would mean renegotiating parts of the bilateral defense agreement with the US, such as provisions for the purchase of military equipment and the transfer of technology. The US Congress, already irritated by the European allies' share of the NATO defense budget, would most probably review its military aid to Spain.
Such prospects are offset by Mr. Gonzalez's proposal to lessen the US presence in Spain. Some 12,000 US soldiers are stationed at Zaragoza, Torrejon, and the naval base of Rota.
In his delicate balancing act, Gonzalez has said, however, Spain would consider signing the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which the US has long been eager to see Spain do.
While polls repeatedly show a majority of the Spanish people voting against NATO, observers find it hard to assess the extent of the anti-NATO feeling. According to Fernando Schwartz, spokesman for the Spanish Foreign Ministry, hostility to NATO is in part linked to the 1953 defense agreement with the US, indirectly associated with NATO. This agreement was seen as prolonging the dictatorship of Francisco Franco for purely strategic reasons. After Franco's death, a strong neutralist attitude swept Spain.
Another explanation for Spain's reticence is that the Spanish do not consider NATO as a defense alliance against a Soviet threat. Mr. Schwartz says: ''For Spaniards, what really counts is what the US and Soviet Union say to each other. For us NATO represents more of a political choice.''