Brussels NATO Summit dominated by funding agenda

For the second time in a row, Brussels is hosting the annual NATO leaders’ meeting. The problems being discussed by the alliance members are virtually the same as last year, with military spending being among the key problems.
The leaders of the 29 NATO member states started to arrive in the alliance’s new headquarters in Brussels around noon. Erecting the compound at Boulevard Léopold III, which was built in the form of interlocked fingers to symbolize unity, became a necessity in the 1990s, when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization started growing rapidly and accepting new members, including former Warsaw Pact countries.

The new building seems like the perfect place for the summit’s “theatrics,” with reflections of NATO’s flying war machines on the shiny glass and metal structure.

But the alliance’s military power was hardly the main topic of discussion. Most the leaders who stopped to talk to journalists before the summit mentioned money issues.

In 2014, all NATO member states agreed to spend at least 2 percent of their gross domestic product on their militaries. But while countries like the UK and the US paid significantly more than they were obliged to (the 2018 estimates are 2.10 percent and 3.50 percent respectively, according to NATO statistics), others, such as Belgium and Spain, are still below 1 percent (both spend 0.93 percent each, according to a July 10 NATO report.)

This unequal approach to military spending was criticized by Donald Trump, who demanded that America’s NATO allies fulfill their promises. But with the NATO combined average of “military GDP percentages” going from 2.40 percent in 2016, to roughly 2.42 percent last year, to the 2018 estimate of 2.40 percent again, it looks like Trump’s words have fallen on deaf ears.

The alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, admitted that politicians don’t like spending money on their militaries, and that he had the same attitude when he was a member of the Norwegian government:

“I have been a politician for many years myself. And we like to spend money on health, on education, on infrastructure, and that kind of stuff. And I have told somebody before — when I was the minister of finance in Norway — I was very good at cutting defense budgets.”

Stoltenberg said that he changed his mind on military spending when he became Norway’s prime minister.

The alliance, which has been growing steadily since the fall of the USSR and approaching Russia’s borders, may need more money for its expansion. Besides, NATO has new games in the making. “Trident Juncture 18,” which will be hosted by Norway in November this year will become the alliance’s biggest exercise in years, bringing together more than 40,000 participants. 

NATO leaders may or may not be aware that Russia doesn’t like the idea of such a massive military buildup by its borders. However, when Jens Stoltenberg mentioned on Wednesday that NATO should engage in a dialogue with Russia, he named the alliance’s increasing activity as one of the reasons why:

“Because we have more military presence, more exercises, more tensions, so we have to avoid miscalculations, incidents and accidents, and, at least, if they happen, prevent them from spiraling out of control and creating really dangerous situations. So, therefore, we need military lines of communications, we need that just to manage our difficult relationship.”

Even though the support for NATO in most European countries is still strong, there are many who don’t like the fact that their taxes are being spent on the alliance’s activities. Protests erupted in Brussels once again on the eve of the summit.

Lieve Franssen is from Brussels. She says that Belgium’s own 0.93 percent of GDP could be put to better use:

“There are so many needs — for housing, for homeless people, for refugees, education, culture. We have to spend money on that, and not weapons,” the woman said. “I’m not at war with anyone. Why should I spend money on those weapons?”

On the second day of the summit, members of the North Atlantic Council will be meeting with the heads of state and governments of Georgia and Ukraine — something that is often regarded by Moscow as NATO “flirting” with potential new members — a process that may put even more pressure on the situation at Russia’s borders.