An Eastern European Could Be The New NATO Chief

By: - April 2, 2024

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Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL’s newsletter focusing on the key issues concerning the European Union, NATO, and other institutions and their relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

I’m RFE/RL Europe Editor Rikard Jozwiak, and this week I’m looking at the key job vacancies in Brussels, as well as Jens Stoltenberg’s last NATO report.

Brief #1: Klaus Iohannis Gets In The Mix

What You Need To Know: Four big political jobs are up for grabs in 2024: the European Commission and European Council presidencies, now occupied by Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, respectively, as well as the bloc’s foreign policy chief post, held by Josep Borrell for the past five years. And then, in another part of the Belgian capital, NATO is looking for a replacement to Jens Stoltenberg as secretary-general with the Norwegian departing after a decade in the post.

Two EU summits in June, already penciled in for June 17 and June 27, featuring the 27 EU heads of state and government, will decide the three posts in closed-door negotiations. It’s a complicated jigsaw in which candidates will be selected that reflect a balance of gender, political affiliation (often divided between pan-European political parties representing the center right, center left, and liberal), and geography.

The European Commission president usually hails from the political group that wins the most votes in the parliamentary elections taking place across the bloc on June 6-9. In the last four elections, this has been the center-right European People’s Party (EPP), and polls indicate they’re on course to win this time as well. Their lead candidate, crowned at the EPP congress in Bucharest last week, is Von der Leyen. Logic would dictate that she’s a shoo-in for another five years heading the European Commission.

Deep Background: This is where outgoing Romanian President Klaus Iohannis comes into the picture. Last week, he officially announced that he wanted to become NATO secretary-general. This position is officially separated from the three EU positions. But considering that 23 out of 27 EU member states also belong to the military alliance and that the NATO secretary-general should be European, the two organizations are fishing in the same talent pool.

Sources at NATO say they want the decision to be made in April, well before the NATO Washington summit in July — and, crucially, well before the process becomes “too entangled” in the EU’s own recruitment timeline.

Only a few weeks ago, Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and the United States (known collectively as the “Quad”), as well as up to 17 other countries, largely in the West, rallied behind outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte. Considered a safe pair of hands with lots of experience, well-liked in Washington, and famously adept at dealing with former U.S. President Donald Trump, in Brussels, he seemed a decent, if perhaps uninspiring, pick.

Drilling Down

  • Iohannis’s candidacy also poses a more pertinent question: Is he the “Eastern” person who will fill one of the four top vacancies? “Eastern” here is far from a coherent geographical or political concept, but it covers the countries of the former Soviet bloc or ex-Yugoslavia that joined the EU (and NATO) in the past 25 years: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Slovenia (and, additionally for NATO, Albania, Montenegro, and North Macedonia).
  • No NATO secretary-general has ever come from any of these countries. In 2019, when the EU last picked the three heads, the eastern flank was completely overlooked. In fact, the only “Easterner” who has ever held a high position in Brussels was current Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, who was president of the European Council from 2014 to 2019. So, one of the four positions on offer in 2024 should really go east.
  • Some arguments truly favor Iohannis. There have already been three Dutch NATO secretary-generals. The Netherlands has struggled to spend 2 percent of gross domestic product on defense, a NATO goal for over a decade and something many Eastern European countries, including Iohannis’s Romania, have managed. Rutte, while being supportive of Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, is considered a “softie” on Russia. His support for Gazprom’s Nordstream 2 pipeline is a case in point.
  • Then there is the need for unanimity. All 32 NATO allies need to be on board. Hungary has already indicated it’s against Rutte, especially after countless spats between The Hague and Budapest over Hungarian rule of law. Turkey hasn’t voiced a preference, but Ankara has had its own issues with Rutte, notably after Turkish efforts a few years ago to hold political rallies in the Netherlands that resulted in The Hague barring Turkish officials from arriving.
  • As one NATO official recently told me, “Turkey and Hungary showed with Sweden’s NATO accession that they are willing to go the extra mile and more to get what they want.” The question remains: Is it Iohannis they want?
  • The consensus among NATO officials seems to be that Rutte will carry the day. It’s hard to get around “the Quad.” Additionally, in some quarters, Iohannis’s move appears a little desperate, and there has been annoyance expressed that the NATO selection process might now continue for months. Others were rather bemused at Iohannis’s 10-point plan — presented in Politico on March 13 — that included things that the military alliance is already doing.
  • There is speculation in Brussels that Iohannis, in fact, isn’t aiming for the NATO role but rather putting himself in the “shop window” for one of the three EU positions. The issue here is that he belongs to the EPP, the same as Von der Leyen. If she gets the commission presidency, it’s unlikely another EPP candidate could get anything else. The center left, the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), will likely finish second in the European Parliament elections and demand the European Council or the foreign policy job. The liberals (Renew) or the more conservative and euroskeptic ECR group could also stake out positions depending on the June vote.
  • Most of the other Easterners who might be gunning for EU jobs belong to the EPP, too. There’s Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic; the Bulgarian managing director of the International Monetary Fund, Kristalina Georgieva; Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski; and his Lithuanian and Latvian counterparts, Gabrielius Landsbergis and Krisjanis Karins, respectively.
  • Von der Leyen is widely considered a successful commission president, especially for her steadfast support for Kyiv. But some in Brussels are a little down on her: There is concern that she’s made the European Commission too powerful and that she runs it with an iron fist, not letting other commissioners shine.
  • Then there is the issue with the European Parliament. The candidate for commission president needs to be approved by a majority of members of the house. Last time, Von der Leyen scraped by with eight votes. It might be even tighter this time. Perhaps that means it’s time for a consensus candidate. And that could be Iohannis or someone else from the eastern part of Europe.

Brief #2: Stoltenberg’s Last NATO Report

What You Need To Know: On March 14, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg presented his annual report for 2023, a common rite of spring in Brussels. It will be the Norwegian’s last, as he is set to depart later this year (as discussed above). The report looks back at 2023, concluding it was “a challenging but successful year for the alliance,” with Finland becoming member No. 31 and Sweden well on the way. (The latter became member No. 32 on March 7.)

The challenges come mainly from Russia, with the text noting that “in 2023, Moscow continued its brutal war of aggression against Ukraine, bringing violence and death to the heart of Europe while, at the same time, seeking to divide NATO.” However, the text goes on: “In doing so, it underestimated both the determination of the people of Ukraine and allied unity.”

Perhaps the most poignant line in the entire 172-page report underlines that, “If Putin wins, this would send a dangerous message to authoritarian leaders around the world that they can achieve their objectives through war and violence. Supporting Ukraine is not charity, it is in our own security interest.”

Those words could be aimed at politicians in some NATO member states who, in recent months, have questioned why the West is supporting Kyiv both politically and militarily.

Deep Background: The big question, however, is what NATO-Ukraine relations will look like going forward. The annual report highlights the key reforms the alliance made in 2023 that have benefited ties with Ukraine. For example, the NATO-Ukraine Commission, which oversaw collaboration between Kyiv and the alliance, was upgraded to a council, meaning that Ukraine now can call a meeting at any level — head of state, ministerial, or ambassadorial — with its NATO counterparts.

Plus, at the Vilnius NATO summit in July 2023, it was also decided that Kyiv doesn’t need the usual Membership Action Plan (MAP) to join NATO, which would make Ukraine’s path toward membership a little easier. And NATO has committed both politically and financially to help Ukraine make its armed forces interoperable with NATO troops, reform its institutions, notably the Defense Ministry, and assist with the general reconstruction of the country.

But is all that enough? And can Ukraine expect anything more at the NATO summit in Washington in July?

The annual report simply notes that “allies will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the alliance when they agree and conditions are met.” From speaking to NATO officials, I don’t think this line will change much going into the July summit. The mantra from alliance officials is still: “As long as the war goes on, little will change politically.”

Now that Finland and Sweden are both members, Ukraine is probably the closest country to joining. That day, however, is unlikely to come any time soon.

For the other two aspirant countries, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia, the language in the report is sparse and not particularly encouraging: “Allies remain committed to supporting the eventual NATO membership of Georgia. Bosnia-Herzegovina continued its close cooperation with NATO, including through the Reform Program, without prejudice to a final decision on NATO membership.”

While NATO will likely emphasize again in Washington that it remains open to new members, the summit won’t be the time or the place when the alliance agrees to let them in.

Drilling Down

  • Perhaps the most interesting section of the report deals with China. For years, NATO has been sharpening its language toward Beijing — and it takes it up another notch here: “China is watching our actions closely. China does not share our values, it challenges our interests, and Beijing is increasingly aligned with Moscow. We will continue to trade and engage with China, but we must manage the risks and prepare for enduring competition.”
  • Ominously, the report warns that “as the war in Ukraine has demonstrated allies’ dangerous dependence on Russian gas, NATO is working to assess potential dependence on other assertive authoritarian regimes for sustaining NATO’s supply chains, technology, or infrastructure.”
  • The report also includes the results of polls taken throughout 2023, where citizens of NATO member states were quizzed on issues related to security. Perhaps the most reassuring result for NATO is that 77 percent of respondents overall think that defense spending should either be maintained at current levels or increased. In 2022, that figure was 74 percent; in 2021, it was 70 percent.
  • Otherwise, there are a few small but worrying indicators for the alliance. In 2023, 73 percent of those polled in NATO countries agreed that other allies should defend their country if attacked, down from 75 percent in 2022. And in 2023, 61 percent of those polled agreed that their country should defend other allies if attacked, compared to 69 percent in 2022.
  • And last year, 63 percent of those polled considered Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to have affected the safety and security of their country. That number was higher, at 64 percent, in 2022. And across NATO, only 22 percent of those polled worried that war will break out in their country; the biggest concern for most people (58 percent) was the high cost of living.
  • Perhaps the most pertinent question is whether people in NATO member states would vote to remain in the military alliance if there was a referendum. In 30 out of the 31 allied countries, a majority would opt to stay in. Montenegro is the only outlier, with only 46 percent of respondents saying they would vote “yes” to continued membership. Curiously, 100 percent — yes, 100 percent — of all Albanians said they would vote in favor of continued membership.

Looking Ahead

The European Commission will present a paper on March 20 on what it calls “pre-enlargement reforms and policy review.” This is an internal exercise showing what the bloc needs to change in order to welcome new members from the Western Balkans and Ukraine. The briefing will be followed by various forums and debates in the future to discuss how an EU with up to 37 members would operate.

A day later, on March 21, EU leaders gather in Brussels for another EU summit. They are expected to endorse the European Commission recommendation to open accession talks with Bosnia, even though they will remain noncommittal on when the negotiations will begin. The leaders are also expected to evaluate Ukraine’s and Moldova’s progress toward membership; urge the European Commission to work on further sanctions against Belarus; and sign off on earmarking 5 billion euros ($5.4 billion) to purchase arms for Ukraine.

That’s all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on Twitter @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at [email protected].

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

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