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Preparing for membership

Karel Kovanda considers how the Czech experience of NATO accession may be useful for the seven countries invited to join the Alliance at the Prague Summit.

Joining ceremony: Czech membership of NATO was delayed for three months as the country worked to meet Minimum Military Requirements (© NATO)

The celebrations in the seven countries invited to join NATO at the Prague Summit were well deserved and reflect a great national achievement. However, if the Czech experience is anything to go by, the latest round of invitees still have many hurdles in front of them to overcome.

The situation today, in the aftermath of the Prague Summit, differs from that which the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland faced when invited to join NATO at the Madrid Summit in July 1997. For one, all seven countries have benefited from participating in the Membership Action Plan (MAP). Nevertheless, the parallels are sufficiently great for the new invitees to benefit from our experience in preparing for Alliance membership during the accession process, in building up effective delegations and ensuring that appropriate security procedures were in place concerning both personnel and information.

In the first post-Cold War round of NATO enlargement, membership invitations were followed by four rounds of accession talks. These covered political and economic issues; issues of military reform; issues of resources; and issues of security, culminating in the signing of accession protocols. The ratification process ended in December 1998, but it took another three months before we formally became members of the Alliance in March 1999. Moreover, our own teething problems are still not completely behind us.

The Madrid Summit was preceded by several rounds of discussions during which Prague and Brussels got to know each other. After Madrid, these discussions became intensive talks in which there was no room for negotiating. Our team consisted of experts from the foreign and defence ministries, as well as the finance and interior ministries. Ahead of each round of talks, NATO provided us with questions. We then prepared detailed written answers, which we handed over during the actual meeting. At that point, we also presented an oral summary of our documentation and answered any supplementary questions.

We found it particularly useful to work together with the other two invitees, Hungary and Poland. Since the dates of each round of accession talks were staggered, whichever country went first in each round would subsequently share its impressions with the other two.

Accession talks

This time around, there will only be two rounds of accession talks. This is because many areas have already been covered in the MAP process. Accession protocols are scheduled to be signed in late March 2003, after which the existing 19 members and all the invitees will have a little over a year to ratify accession for the process to be completed by the next NATO Summit in May 2004.

The MAP process was one in which countries volunteered to adopt and absorb NATO recommendations. There may, however, be some issues that NATO will require countries to address as members. In our case, a series of such matters came up during the last phase of ratification. This included the issues of our compatibility with NATO air defences and legislation that would permit effective assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty, the collective defence clause. We had to work hard to meet these Minimum Military Requirements, as they were called, though they obviously concerned more than simply military issues. And this was the reason for the three-month delay between December 1998 and March 1999 before we were able to sign the Washington Treaty.

One new issue during the accession talks was the size of our contribution to NATO's civilian, military and security-investment budgets. The percentage was calculated by NATO's economists on the basis of gross domestic product and purchasing power parity considerations and approved by the North Atlantic Council. It was then presented to us on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

In the case of the Czech Republic, we contribute 0.9 per cent to each of NATO's three budgets. This amounts to about 15 million Euros annually. These contributions, and the cost of maintaining representation and the officers in NATO's command structure, are the only real direct expenses that NATO membership entails. All other expenses are either voluntary or would be needed whether or not a country is in NATO.

Once we completed the talks, we sent the Secretary General a letter reconfirming our interest in joining NATO. The talks then culminated in our witnessing Allied ministers sign separate accession protocols for each country in a joint ceremony in Brussels. Once the accession protocol was signed, it had to be approved by all member countries. This was a time-consuming process in which parliamentary ratification was generally required.

My own country also had to ratify its accession to NATO. One way to have done this would have been to wait for the completion of the ratification process in all 16 existing members and then pass our own national legislation. However, that would have slowed the process by several weeks. As a result, we passed "conditional" legislation effectively authorising the cabinet to accept an invitation to join NATO "should such an invitation be extended". Each country has slightly different procedures. In the Czech case, the process culminated with President Václav Havel signing the instruments of ratification. A similar event took place in Budapest and Warsaw at the same time so as to avoid a situation where one country became a NATO member ahead of the other two and then found itself obliged to ratify their accession.

Building an effective representation

During the accession process it was critical to build up our representation. This is an extremely demanding process and mistakes made at this stage will likely come back to haunt countries. All delegations consist of a political section — a mixture of diplomats, usually from the foreign ministry, and defence advisers, usually civilian experts from the defence ministry — and of a military section, consisting of officers.

Designing the internal structure of a delegation is complex. How, for example, should the diplomats, defence advisers and the military work together? What mechanisms will ensure that all components of the delegation cooperate and do not adopt different positions in different committees? And how can the permanent representative be aware of who is doing what without being overwhelmed with minutiae? These are extremely important considerations and each delegation sorts them out in a different way.

The ratification period should be used for intensive recruitment

In the Czech case, we found it useful to formalise the broad outlines of the inner workings of our delegation, including for example the relationship among people who are seconded by, subordinated to and paid by different ministries, in a statute. Before this statute was promulgated, its provisions were broadly discussed in Prague, especially between the foreign and defence ministries. It was first drafted when the Czech Mission to NATO was established, and modified when we became a full-fledged member of the Alliance to reflect our new standing and the experience we had gathered in the interim.

The ratification period should also be used for intensive recruitment of personnel. At the time the accession protocol was signed, the Czech Mission to NATO had fewer than ten full-time employees and consisted of a defence adviser, a military representative, a secretary, a driver, a couple of diplomats and the ambassador. Beefing up the mission was one of my first tasks — and one that could not wait.

One reason it could not wait was that — contrary to our expectations — NATO opened most committees to us almost immediately. Indeed, within weeks of the signing of the accession protocol, we found we could barely cope with the number of meetings we were being invited to, which eventually included everything for which we had security clearance. Although officially we participated as observers, this did not prevent our representatives from speaking up. And the only meetings we had difficulty attending were those with third parties where third-party agreement was required as well. In effect, we ended up participating in all such meetings — with the exception of the Permanent Joint Council, where the NATO Allies met with Russia.

The implication is clear. The new invitees will likely be able to participate in NATO structures almost as soon as the ink on the accession protocols is dry. Since this is an extremely valuable learning experience, countries would do well to beef up their missions as fast as is possible.

Interestingly, countries have "missions" until they formally become NATO members. Then, they have the option of renaming their "mission" a "delegation". All NATO members, with the exception of the United States, have delegations. At the same time, whereas the abbreviation for Partner countries used at NATO has three letters, it shrinks to two letters for members. In this way, the abbreviation for the Czech Republic changed from CZE to CZ.

The Czech delegation now has some 50 people, including diplomats, defence advisers, military personnel and support staff. For our needs, this is about the right size. Some delegations, though, are smaller. In building up delegations, it is important to find people who are competent in the issues, fluent in at least one of the Alliance's two working languages and who will have the necessary security clearance. These are tough criteria and I have to wage a constant struggle to maintain my delegation at full strength.

Finding qualified military personnel is even more difficult. This is because the military have to find officers who, in addition to competence, language skills and security clearance, have the appropriate rank. Moreover, they have to staff not only the Czech delegation and our representation at Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe in Mons but also dozens of posts in various NATO military commands. The NATO command structure is currently being revised and the last step in this revision will be the extraordinarily difficult "flags to posts" exercise, determining, among other things, which slots the invitees' military will be expected to fill. In addition, NATO's International Military Staff is staffed according to national quotas.

Many of the latest round of invitees may find the task of finding qualified personnel to staff delegations even more challenging than we did. This is because five of the seven newly invited countries will be joining the European Union at about the same time as the NATO ratification process winds up. In addition to augmenting their NATO representations, therefore, they will also have to strengthen their EU presence.

Security issues

The importance of well-drafted national security legislation cannot be overestimated. There is a NATO standard policy that could simply be translated and put in force at home. For historical reasons, however, Czech legislation ended up more exacting than the minimum NATO requirements. As a result, the vetting process has proved extremely time-consuming. Planning for rotation of diplomats and soldiers for NATO-related posts is disproportionately long and cumbersome compared to planning for any other positions in our foreign missions. Moreover, additional difficulties arise when it comes to certifying communication equipment and certifying national industrial companies for work with NATO.

Devising a secure communications system is critical to a delegation's effectiveness, since NATO classifies documents according to their level of confidentiality, ranging from "Restricted" to "Confidential", "Secret" and beyond. Within NATO, we use the Minerva system to receive documents with classification up to and including "NATO Secret", which we send to Prague via NATO's Cronos system. However, every delegation has to resolve the question of managing its communications and document flow with its head office or even with several head offices. Great care has to be given to building if not a unified then at least a compatible communications system for both political and military sides of the delegation. This is not an easy task. Every institution wants to have its own system and expects others to convert to using it.

To be honest, we are yet to find an ideal way to manage the flow of documents. We know how to receive documents and pass them on to our capital relatively efficiently. To date, however, we have great difficulty in passing on NATO documents to our embassies in third countries. Needless to say, much useful information gathered at NATO goes to waste and this undercuts the efficiency of our foreign service.

Closely connected with communications is the handling of documents. Between 25,000 and 30,000 pass through our registry every year. It took us some time to reduce our own complex system to a single registry for both civilian and military use, but we are now happy to have a single line of document numbers for all parts of the delegation. For even though all NATO documents are already numbered, they receive a Czech number as well. At every step, security considerations and common sense have to be balanced. And this underscores the importance of communication and coordination, in administrative issues as well as in issues of substance, between the different components of the delegation.

The coming years will clearly be difficult for the invitees, just as the past few years have been a challenge for the Czech Republic. However, the ultimate prize, namely establishing an effective presence at NATO, is well worth the effort. And NATO membership is a great national achievement for all our countries.

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