Publication: Monitor Volume: 7 Issue: 145

Visiting Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia on July 26-28, French President Jacques Chirac put the full weight of France behind the three Baltic states’ candidacies for NATO membership. This move changes the correlation of forces in the intra-European debate over NATO’s enlargement. Through Chirac’s statements, France has become the first among Europe’s “Big Three”–Berlin, Paris and London–to endorse NATO’s Baltic enlargement. With Britain’s Labor government officially still silent on the issue, but generally expected to vote with the United States for the Balts at next year’s NATO summit, Germany remains exposed as the last major foot-dragger on the issue of Baltic membership in the alliance.

Chirac’s was the first visit by a French president to the Baltic states since Francois Mitterrand’s visit nine years ago. Acknowledging the relative neglect of the Baltic region in France’s European policy, Chirac strongly underscored Estonia’s, Latvia’s and Lithuania’s historic affinities with Western Europe. He described the three states’ aspiration to join the European Union and NATO as a case not only of the Balts returning to Europe, but also, and, “more important, a case of Europe regaining the Baltic states.”

Some of Chirac’s remarks seemed to evidence a realization in Paris that French and German reservations about NATO’s Baltic enlargement had tended to diminish Franco-German political clout in the region while maximizing the American and demonstrating the American leadership of the alliance. At one point he explicitly stated that consistent American support for admitting the Balts will make it inevitable for other allies, including France, to go along with it. Yet beyond such tactical considerations, the tenor of Chirac’s remarks clearly stem from deeper convictions about expanding Europe, which place Paris firmly in the front seat of the Franco-German tandem on this issue. The French position will make it increasingly uncomfortable for official Berlin to buck the emerging consensus on both the European and the trans-Atlantic levels, as well as the incremental shift in the German debate also favoring the alliance’s Baltic enlargement.

In Vilnius, Riga and Tallinn, Chirac stated time and again that France supports the Baltic states’ decision to join NATO and that Russia has neither the right nor the reasons to stand in the way. “The Baltic states have freely decided to integrate with NATO. That being their choice, it is thereby legitimate. France can only understand and adopt the three states’ position. Every state must have the right to choose the alliance it wants to join. No one can oppose that principle. The process must be open, so that Russia does not feel threatened or perceives [enlargement] as an aggression” (statement in Vilnius). “France can only support Latvia’s, Estonia’s and Lithuania’s wish to join NATO, and do so at next year’s allied summit.” “I don’t expect that Russia wants to resist at any cost. I don’t think they have the ability or even the wish to stop the enlargement. The alliance itself will make the decision and I don’t see who could stand against it” (statements in Riga). “France takes a positive view of the Baltic states’ decision to become members of NATO. The alliance is a defensive one, and thus Russia need not feel concerned over its enlargement.” France is in favor of all three states being admitted to NATO (statements in Tallinn, the latter part discarding an earlier, one-country admission scenario).