Brussels (AFP) – Outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte is the clear favorite to become the next NATO leader, although a surprise victory by the far right in his country’s elections risks tarnishing his legacy.
Published on: 11/28/2023 – 04:57Amended: 11/28/2023 – 04:56
Several diplomats put the veteran well ahead of other hopefuls, including Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Latvia’s top diplomat Krisjanis Karins, who are jostling to succeed current alliance boss Jens Stoltenberg next year .
Stoltenberg’s successor, whose 10-year term was twice extended due to Russia’s war against Ukraine, is expected to be announced before the July summit in Washington.
After ruling himself out of the NATO post in previous years, Rutte, 56, is now available following his surprise resignation this summer.
Last month, he told Dutch media that running the alliance was “very interesting” work and that he would be open to the prospect if it arose.
A familiar figure on the European scene after 13 years at the head of the Netherlands, the Dutch pillar is already favored by NATO heavyweights such as the United States, Great Britain, France and Germany, according to diplomats.
“He is a candidate for the post of Secretary General of NATO. He made it clear that he was available and had broad support,” an alliance diplomat said.
Some supporters want his nomination to be finalized quickly to avoid the NATO post becoming entangled with EU leadership posts up for grabs after next June’s elections.
But there is likely still some frantic haggling to come, and others warn the matter is not yet settled with possible opposition from their awkward allies Turkey and Hungary.
A potential stumbling block for Rutte could be the situation he leaves behind in the Netherlands, where the victory of far-right Geert Wilders sent shockwaves across Europe.
“If you come from a wreck, it may be harder to make your point,” said a diplomat from a second NATO country.
“If you look at the other favorites before, they often failed in the end. Let’s wait and see. »
During discussions over a possible replacement for Stoltenberg in previous years, various NATO allies had expressed their wishes for the alliance’s next leader.
Some wanted to choose a woman to lead NATO for the first time and countries on the eastern flank, closer to Russia, hoped to find someone from their region.
Estonia’s Kallas meets these criteria, but is seen as too hawkish towards Moscow by some in the west.
Another demand was to appoint a leader from a country that meets NATO’s target of spending 2% of its GDP on defense.
The Netherlands failed to achieve that goal during Rutte’s long tenure, but it has promised to do so next year and his supporters say it shows his commitment.
Rutte’s government has also played a leading role in supporting Ukraine, this month pledging an additional two billion euros and leading efforts to equip Kiev with F-16 fighter jets.
He would become the fourth Dutchman to lead the NATO alliance, strengthening arguments by some that the alliance is not stepping out of its comfort zone.
But his supporters insist he is fully aware of the dangers posed by Russia.
His years in power were marked by the deaths of 196 Dutch nationals when a missile investigators say was supplied by Moscow brought down an airliner over Ukraine in 2014.
The specter of a return to the American presidency of Donald Trump next year also figures in the thinking of certain allies in Europe.
Trump reportedly considered removing key power the United States from the alliance during his term and harangued other members to increase spending.
Stoltenberg managed to dissuade him and was nicknamed “the Trump whisperer” for his handling of the volatile former reality TV star.
Rutte was not afraid to speak directly to Trump and even publicly contradicted him during a visit to the White House over a possible US-EU trade deal.
The Dutchman’s supporters believe that his long experience in seeking compromises as a statesman should stand him in good stead.
Those who are less convinced say it might be easier to keep Trump alongside a NATO leader who has spent more on defense.
“During his first term, Trump focused heavily on the need for all allies to contribute financially,” said a third NATO diplomat.
“From that perspective, someone who has demonstrated a clear commitment to this defense investment commitment is an asset. »
Stoltenberg himself told AFP on Monday that Rutte was a “friend and a good colleague”.
“He is a competent politician with a lot of experience as prime minister,” Stoltenberg said.
“But it’s not up to me to decide who will succeed me. »
© 2023 AFP