Spain has set the time clock ticking on the issue of United States military bases. This week Spanish officials are to hand US Ambassador Reginald Bartholomew a formal note giving notice that the bilateral defense agreement will end next May. The agreement will not be automatically renewed. If a new treaty is not agreed upon by then, the US will have one year to withdraw its forces and material.
The promise to reduce US military presence was largely how Socialist premier Felipe Gonz'alez won over a hostile public opinion in a March 1986 referendum to remain in NATO. Since July 1986 Spanish and US negotiators have tackled the issue, based mainly on the Spanish demand to remove from Spain the 72 F-16 aircraft (known as Tactical Airwing 401) stationed at the Torrej'on Air Base outside Madrid as well as tanker aircraft at the fighter training base at Zaragoza.
The seventh round of talks ended in Madrid last Friday with little sign of progress. Both sides attempted not to dramatize the present deadlock and said they want to reach an agreement.
Mr. Gonz'alez recently said, ``The Spanish government is looking for ways for the Americans to stay, not for ways for them to go.''
Spanish officials admit there is little room for concessions since their initial negotiating demand to remove all the F-16s was leaked. Public and political pressure is building on the government to keep to its demand.
Yet with the time clock now set in motion, both sides have entrenched themselves in their positions, and no one knows how an agreement can be achieved.
The treaty, first signed by Gen. Francisco Franco in 1953 and last renewed in 1983, covers the joint use of three air bases, Torrej'on, Zaragoza, and Mor'on, and the naval base at Rota for supporting the US Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean, various tracking stations, and up to 12,500 US servicemen. The treaty would normally have been extended one extra year.
Spain insists on keeping the negotiation on a strictly bilateral terrain, yet the US has all along stressed the ``essential'' role of the F-16s for Western security and wants to drop the issue into NATO's lap. The treaty covers bilateral defense interests as well as cooperation with NATO.
US sources now say the airwing's conventional and nuclear roles could become even more important in light of US-Soviet plans to eliminate intermediate-range missiles.
But Spain is seeking to limit its role in NATO to its own geographical region and to enforce its nonnuclear policy as stipulated in the March 1986 NATO referendum. Spain maintains it is both incapable of taking on all the missions presently carried out by US forces and unwilling to do so.
Spain also is wary of providing material support for US actions such as the punitive attack on Libya in April 1986. Then US planes had to avoid using Spanish airspace and refueling facilities.
According to US sources, the withdrawal of the airwing would seriously weaken NATO's southern flank. What's more, the US Senate recently passed an amendment to the budget bill which prohibits the US from paying the cost of moving the planes anywhere except back to the US, which puts the onus on the NATO countries. European concern over an isolationist current in the US Congress and the threat of a US withdrawal from Europe has also prompted NATO allies such as Holland and Belgium to press the Spanish to keep the F-16s in Spain.
But Spanish authorities have said that in their view the removal of the F-16s would not be detrimental to Western security. Spain point outs that the naval base at Rota is not even under discussion. Spain proposes to receive the F-16s in times of crisis and offers a ``flexible'' time scale for the withdrawal of the airwing.