By Alexandra Brzozowski
(EurActiv) — NATO leaders descend on London this week to mark the Alliance’s seventy years of existence and attempt to mend the widening cracks in the Western military pact. But as the celebration could easily turn into a family feud, here are a couple of issues to watch.
Security forces are taking no chances after the London Bridge terror incident, with additional security measures having been put in place across London and near the summit venue in Watford.
Roads, canal, and pathways blocked off to the public from Monday (2 December) until the early hours of Thursday morning.
Setting the scene
Disruption is also the order of the day in Britain, gripped by a highly emotional national election campaign in recent weeks, with Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s friendship with Trump under attack from opposition parties, potentially to be weaponised to worry floating voters.
With the NATO summit being a welcome distraction from domestic headaches, Johnson has high hopes to show statesmanship in Watford and restore a bit of his tarnished international image as UK’s foreign secretary.
Johnson will be hoping to keep the unpopular US president at arm’s length, who in fact has agreed not to interfere in the general election when he visits the UK after a plea from Johnson himself.
Macron’s brain death
All eyes will be on French President Emmanuel Macron, whose sobering comments in an Economist interview earlier this month took many by surprise and sent shock waves through the Alliance, which has been plagued for months by squabbles over burden-sharing and strategic choices.
Merkel rejects Macron’s criticism of NATO. Angela Merkel played down French President Emmanuel Macron’s words, which …
The French leader has despaired of the club’s strategic direction, having attacked NATO’s response over Syria as “brain-dead” and suggested that “new alliances and new ways to cooperate” against the threat from terrorism, including a new approach towards the Sahel, are needed and with that had riled other leaders, drawing a rare public rebuke from German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
Macron went on to reiterate his position in his remarks at an Elysée press conference last week, flanked by a visibly uncomfortable NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who made his way to Paris in a last-ditch effort to soothe the French position.
Eastern European allies might be especially not amused, after Macron, asked whether he still believed in the Article 5 collective defence pledge, replied “I don’t know”, calling into question NATO’s bedrock principle.
NATO’s other problem child
Fuel is added to the French flames by Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who provoked a Franco-Turkish diplomatic rift on Friday by claiming it was Macron who was ‘brain dead’ and insisting he would say so again at the summit.
Cracks in the military alliance have emerged after NATO member Turkey began its offensive in Syria in October, with EU governments threatening sanctions against Ankara.
In October, Stoltenberg had warned the military alliance should not lose its unity in the fight against Daesh (IS), in light of Turkey’s military operation against Kurdish militants in northeastern Syria.
Erdogan, furious at Western criticism of his operation in northern Syria against the Kurds, in return hit back with a personal attack on Macron.
“I’m addressing Mr Macron from Turkey and I will say it at NATO: You should check whether you are brain dead first,” Erdogan said in a televised speech. “These statements are suitable only to people like you who are in a state of brain death,” the Turkish leader added.
The comments drew a swift rebuke from the French foreign ministry, which summoned Turkey’s ambassador to Paris to protest over what a French presidential adviser called “insults”, while other French officials said they expected clarifications from Erdogan rather than a war of words.
Words aside, Turkey’s decision to defy the US and its NATO allies by purchasing the Russian S-400 anti-aircraft system – an extraordinary step for a NATO ally – will not add to the good mood of the gathering as many see in it Turkey’s drift away from the West.
“The system is incompatible with NATO systems, so all problems that might or might not arise from that fact have to be taken into account,” a NATO source told EURACTIV asked whether there had been incidents or communication issues due to equipment difference.
Beyond the issue of Turkey’s offensive in Syria, its refusal to back a NATO defence plan for the Baltic republics and Poland will cause some bad blood.
“Poland expects a clear statement of NATO unity”, the president’s head of office, Krzysztof Szczerski, announced on Sunday.
The Trump factor
The US president has repeatedly scolded European NATO members of “failing to pay their fair share” and will be looking for evidence they are stepping up defence spending.
It was therefore no surprise that Stoltenberg has pre-emptively released new spending data, designed to prevent the topic from eating up to much time from the rest of the agenda items.
According to the fresh numbers, in 2019 defence spending across Europe and Canada increased in real terms by 4.6 %, making it the fifth consecutive year of growth, which Stoltenberg said “is unprecedented progress making NATO stronger”.
Europe and Canada need to spend more – 18 of the 29 members are expected to meet the alliance’s 2% target by 2024 – but not “to please President Trump”, Stoltenberg added.
Thus, European allies hope that the prospect of promised higher defence spending on this side of the Atlantic of $130 billion since 2016, decrease in US share of NATO budget plus increased high readiness forces will make US President Donald Trump stick to script.
US officials admitted that European allies still fear Trump’s unpredictability proven at previous gatherings such as the NATO summit last year, which went off the when Trump launched a tirade at Merkel during a televised breakfast meeting.
According to US senior administration officials, Trump has been “deeply annoyed” by Macron lately and analysts told EURACTIV that they believe Macron’s comments could in turn have the ironic effect of causing Trump to speak more positively about the state of NATO in order to contradict Macron’s negativity.
With pressure from congressional impeachment hearings back at home, where Democrats prepare to shift from fact-finding to the consideration of possible charges of misconduct over Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, the threshold is higher than ever.
New kid on the bloc
While the EU faces a rift over its enlargement policy after the French ‘non’ to a decision of opening accession negotiations with North Macedonia and Albania, Skopje is on straight track to fully-fledged membership in the alliance.
The country was invited to join the bloc at the Bucharest summit in 2008 as long as it reached consensus with Greece in their years-long naming dispute.
While the US has been the latest member to approve North Macedonia’s NATO Accession Protocol on 2 December, Skopje is waiting just on Spain to give its approval, which will effectively result in North Macedonia joining in the first months of 2020.
The country, however, is invited to participate in the London summit and its flags had been added to the national display – a sign North Macedonia is already treated as a “de facto” NATO member.
Decisions and non-decisions
Personal feuds aside, the actual meeting agenda is pretty thin, with Stoltenberg hoping to get leaders to sign off on decisions already taken such as cyber and the new space strategy.
The increasing division in NATO over China, over whether to allow Huawei to operate 5G networks and over a growing alignment between Beijing and some central and eastern European countries will feed into the discussion.
A NATO spokesperson reject the label of “summit”, insisting that this is really a lesser affair than the full-scale summit last year; and no formal statement by all 29 leaders will be issued, whereas instead there will be a “short declaration on the ‘success story of NATO’”, a diplomat said.
The meeting is expected to establish a “group of experts” to work on Macron’s complaints as NATO leaders are asked to consider separate French and German proposals for expert committees to mull how NATO can improve its strategic thinking in the future.
Stoltenberg last week welcomed the German plan to create a group of experts – chaired by himself – but was reserved on the French plan proposal.
Beyond the politics, the summit has been set up as an anniversary leaders meeting, with an event hosted by leading world think tanks and state dinner with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. The actual working sessions will last only 3 hours.