Support Grows For Rutte As Next NATO Boss, But Eastern Europe Still Lurking


By Aurélie Pugnet

(EurActiv) — Public support from the West is growing for the Dutchman Mark Rutte to become NATO’s next secretary-general, but he will still need to secure crucial support among members from Eastern Europe.

The outgoing Dutch prime minister has been a top contender to take over Jens Stoltenberg’s spot at the helm of the Western military alliance for months now and even become an “official candidate”, meaning he is seriously looking for support.

His path toward the NATO top job seemed to straighten significantly on Thursday (22 February) when Washington, London, and Berlin expressed their official backing, the first public support since he entered the race.

But it was quickly overshadowed by reports that Romanian President Klaus Iohannis could also throw his hat into the race.

Pundits in Romania suggest Iohannis is looking for a job as he has served two five-year terms and cannot run for president again when his term ends in December.

Whether he is serious or not, the mention of his name highlights that Rutte will have to convince the Eastern European NATO members to support him after they have been coveting the job for years.

The appointment of a new secretary-general follows an unofficial, informal, closed-doors process, including several criteria to be taken into account, like availability, gender, but also nationality, and national military spending, which makes it difficult to get a clear sense of who will take up the job.

Most importantly, backing by the United States, the largest defence spender and the biggest army in NATO is seen among members as almost a seal of approval.

Stoltenberg’s term is scheduled to end on 1 October, after ten years on the job.

Efforts to select the best-fitting replacement for the Norwegian have been inconclusive before. His mandate has been renewed several times already, including twice since the war in Ukraine started, as NATO members preferred to keep the alliance in a safe pair of hands in times of war.

East vs. West

Around the NATO defence ministerial meeting last week, Rutte’s bid had received backing from around two-thirds of NATO member, sources told Euractiv.

However, Rutte is facing two main hurdles: his nationality and the fact that he has never advocated for increased defence spending until recently.

Out of all the secretaries-general in the 75 years of NATO’s history, three came from the Netherlands, helming the alliance for over twenty years. Meanwhile, none ever came from the East.

Iohannis is from the East but is not too Russia hawkish and has always pledged to important defence spending.

Romania has been present in the alliance with Mircea Geoană, Stoltenberg’s deputy for close to five years, but the idea of proposing Iohannis as head of the alliance has been floated in the alliance’s corridors since the start of the war in Ukraine in 2022 – albeit never publicly.

Other Easterners have also expressed interest, such as former Latvian prime minister and now Foreign Minister Krišjānis Kariņš, or Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas, both seen as a good fit.

But for Western NATO members, naming someone from Eastern Europe, which is traditionally more hawkish toward Moscow, could send too strong a signal of confrontation to Moscow, while putting aside the China issue.

Turkey, on its end, argues it needs reassurance from Rutte that he would take the threat of terrorism seriously into account, and lobby to drop restrictions on export of weapons between allies.

Discussions among NATO members are continuing, with an agreement coming “soon”, one diplomat told Euractiv, as the upcoming horse-trading over distributing the top EU jobs after the June elections, and the US elections may slow down or complicate the process.

People with knowledge of the process said the name would be revealed during the foreign ministerial meeting of 3-4 April, when officials and politicians will also celebrate the alliance’s 75th anniversary.

The next secretary-general would, however, only succeed Stoltenberg in the autumn, leaving the Norwegian to chair the leaders’ summit in Washington from 9-11 July.


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