By David Brunnstrom
BRUSSELS, Feb 6 (Reuters) - The United States has agreed in principle that France should secure two top NATO posts in the event of its expected return to alliance military structures, a diplomat said on Friday.
General Charles de Gaulle withdrew French forces from NATO’s command in 1966 at the height of the Cold War and expelled the alliance’s headquarters from Paris and Fontainebleau in protest at what he saw as U.S. hegemony in Europe.
President Nicolas Sarkozy has said that he wants France to assume its full role in NATO, a step which could be agreed as early as an April summit in Strasbourg due to mark the 60th anniversary of the Western military pact.
"Yes, there is an informal agreement between the two governments," said the diplomat, who had direct knowledge of alliance discussions on the matter.
Under the agreement, French officials would head NATO’s regional command headquarters in Lisbon, Portugal, and its Allied Command Transformation (ACT) headquarters in Norfolk, Virginia -- the command centre in charge of revamping Europe’s Cold War protector to tackle 21st century security challenges.
The diplomat stressed the deal had not yet been finalised as France had not spelled out exactly how and when it would seek to rejoin the military structures.
While France already fields thousands of troops in NATO’s operations in Afghanistan, Kosovo and elsewhere, its formal return to the alliance military command would be a landmark move with the potential to ease lingering tensions over how Europe and the United States organise defence cooperation.
Sarkozy has said he wants to see a parallel push for the European Union to strengthen its military might, which he sees as complementary to NATO’s operations.
Yet non-EU NATO member Turkey has resisted efforts by the two bodies to cooperate more closely, complaining that EU member Cyprus -- with whom it has a longstanding dispute over the divided island -- is blocking its bid for closer EU ties leading to membership.
Turkish Foreign Minister Ali Babacan said on Friday it was still assessingthe possibility of France rejoining NATO’s military command structure.
"Whether this decision needs to be put to a vote or not is still being evaluated in NATO," Babacan told reporters before departing for a security conference in Germany where top U.S. and European officials are seen discussing the issue.
"It is more of a political matter than a legal one. Most of the NATO allies see this as a positive thing but we are still evaluating," he added.
Alliance officials say there is no need for a consensus vote on the step, if France decides to go ahead with it.
"It is France’s decision to make politically whether it wants to take its full place in NATO’s military structure," said NATO spokesman James Appathurai. (Additional reporting by Zerin Elci in Ankara; writing by Mark John; Editing by Charles Dick)