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Even though popular and official opinion had been virtually unanimous in favoring Spain's accession to the EC, considerable doubts were expressed with regard to Spanish membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). Spain's significant geographical position, astride some of the world's major sea, air, and land communication routes, made it a valuable potential partner for the alliance. Spanish proponents of NATO membership argued that these same geopolitical considerations made such membership equally advantageous to Spain, because the country's strategic location could make it an obvious target in any major conflict unless it had allied support. They also maintained that integration into NATO would ensure sorely needed modernization of Spain's armed services in addition to the securing of adequate national defense. A corollary hope was that NATO membership would reorient the focus of army leaders away from reactionary preoccupations and toward defense of the West.
Many political forces in Spain, particularly the socialists and the communists, did not agree that full membership would benefit the country's defense and foreign policy aims. On the contrary, they felt it would raise the level of tension between the rival power blocs and would make Spain a more likely target in any future conflict with the Soviet Union. Moreover, opponents of NATO membership pointed out that NATO would be of no assistance in an area of primary concern to Spain: the two Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, which are located in Morocco and which are outside the geographic zone of application of the North Atlantic Treaty. They also maintained that NATO would be of no benefit to Spain in the country's long-standing effort to recover Gibraltar, because it could be assumed that other NATO members would support Britain on this issue. Resentment of the United States as the principal supporter of the Franco regime was another factor influencing those who opposed Spain's entry into NATO.
Although Suarez had announced Spain's intention of applying for NATO membership, his Union of the Democratic Center (Union de Centro Democratico--UCD) government remained somewhat divided over the question. After Suarez resigned in 1981, his successor, Leopoldo Calvo Sotelo, gave high priority to this issue, arguing that Spain's entry into NATO would expedite negotiations for integration into the EC. In December 1981, the Cortes approved membership in NATO by majority vote, over the vigorous opposition of a large leftist minority. Spain officially joined NATO in May 1982.
Leaders on the left protested bitterly that NATO membership had been pushed through parliament in violation of the consensus that had been the basis of all major political decisions since 1977. The Socialists organized a protest campaign, and the PSOE leader, Gonzalez, made the NATO issue a major feature of his electoral platform in 1982, promising a popular referendum on withdrawal from NATO in the event of a Socialist victory.
No immediate steps were taken to fulfill this promise, following the overwhelming Socialist victory in October 1982, although the PSOE confirmed in June 1983 that it would campaign in favor of withdrawal when the referendum was held. Many Socialists took part in a large anti-NATO demonstration organized by the PCE in June 1984, but Gonzalez was having second thoughts, and he found reasons to delay the referendum. Although neutralist opinion remained strong in Spain, the government evolved toward a position favoring continued membership in NATO, which it perceived as the principal guarantor of European security. A significant factor in this change of position was the fear that withdrawal from NATO might become an insuperable obstacle to entry into the EC.
When the referendum eventually was set for March 2, 1986, Gonzalez engaged in a vigorous campaign for continued, but limited, NATO membership. The government presented NATO membership as a corollary to EC membership, and it warned of the serious economic consequences of a vote to withdraw. In spite of opinion polls indicating the probability of a negative outcome, the government secured a clear margin of victory for its position. With almost 60 percent of the electorate participating, 52.6 percent of the voters supported Spain's continued membership in NATO, while 39.8 percent opposed it. Spain remained the sixteenth member of NATO.
The following year, in a move seen as emphasizing the European aspect of the defense system, Gonzalez made a bid for Spanish membership in the Western European Union (WEU), a sevennation European defense grouping, originally formed in 1948, that experienced revitalization in the 1980s. On April 19, 1988, Spain and Portugal were formally invited to join the organization.
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Source: U.S. Library of Congress