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Saturday 13 July 2024

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Mark Rutte (left), then-Dutch prime minister who is the now the incoming NATO secretary-general, meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kharkiv on March 1.
Mark Rutte (left), then-Dutch prime minister who is the now the incoming NATO secretary-general, meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in Kharkiv on March 1.

Welcome to Wider Europe, RFE/RL's new 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 drilling down on big issue: the NATO summit in Washington, D.C., from July 9-11.

Is Ukraine Really Edging Closer To The Alliance?

One of the main things to look out for during the summit is the wording about Ukraine's NATO membership prospects in the final declaration. The drafting of this document, which usually stretches several pages, has been under way in NATO HQ in Brussels for weeks and the main bone of contention is how exactly to craft sentences pertaining to the chances of Kyiv joining the military alliance. Ukraine will not be invited to join now, that much is clear.

NATO has been adamant that Ukraine cannot join as long as the war rages on in the country, as members don't want to be dragged into a direct confrontation with Russia. One can also rule out some of the creative but rather far-fetched ideas like allowing NATO's mutual defense clause, Article 5, to cover the Ukrainian territory that Kyiv currently controls but not the part that Moscow has occupied.

According to NATO officials familiar with the drafting, the idea is to go a bit further than the Vilnius declaration from the summit in the Lithuanian capital last year. At that time, the new thing was that the allies recognized that Ukraine doesn't need a Membership Action Plan (MAP), a sort of "antechamber" to membership that spells out various reforms that a country needs to complete before joining. This step was in fact made redundant when Finland joined in record speed in 2023 and Sweden a year later, without ever receiving a MAP.

But in fact, this isn't so much about reform even if some allies are making noises about the need to combat corruption. It is about finding political consensus on when Ukraine can join and what to say in the meantime. In the Vilnius declaration, there was a nod to the 2008 summit in Bucharest when it first was declared that "Ukraine will become a member of NATO." Expect something similar or even the same language this time around, even though there is likely to be no commitments to some sort of date. The Vilnius text spelled out that "we will be in a position to extend an invitation to Ukraine to join the Alliance when Allies agree, and conditions are met."

From what I have heard, two aspects could be included in the text. U.S. officials, like Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have recently used the term "bridge to membership" when talking about Ukraine and NATO. So expect that this might make its way into the final communique in one form or another, even if it is unclear what exactly that phrase entails. Another word that also might be included is "irreversible," meaning that Kyiv's road to membership is set. So, the sense of direction is there, just don't ask about the timetable.

What Will Ukraine Get?

First of all, many allies are expected to announce more bilateral arms deliveries to Ukraine at the summit. The question, as always, will be how quickly they will arrive on the battlefield. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is expected to be present at the summit and there is hope among NATO officials that there won't be a repeat of the Vilnius summit, where he expressed frustration in a tweet prior to the meeting that Kyiv wasn't given a clearer timetable of joining. This time, they point out that there is more expectation management in the build-up to the meeting, especially with Ukraine struggling at the front lines and the crucial presidential election in the United States just four months away.

In fact, the two big headline items to be announced at the summit are more or less already agreed upon. The first so-called "deliverable" is what you would call the "NATO-ization" of Ukraine aid and training. Essentially, the military organization will now start taking over the coordination of donations of weapons and ammunition deliveries to the war-torn country from the U.S.-led Ramstein Group, which brings together over 50 mainly Western states that have met on a near-monthly basis since the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The German city of Wiesbaden will now become a planning center for both training and deliveries with logistical nodes in several eastern alliance countries, involving 700 personnel from NATO and partner countries.

The second announcement concerns military funding for Ukraine. Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg first proposed around 100 billion euros ($108 billion) a year, for five years. Then it was watered down to 40 billion for multiple years, but in the end the 40 billion is committed only for 2024 and funding will be revisited again at the next summit in 2025.

The contribution from the 32 allies would be based on their countries' GDP and it is supposed to be fresh money to help the war effort but there are two question-marks here: will there not be some creative accounting on behalf of some member states? It could very well be that some will attempt to count aid already provided in their calculation or mix military with humanitarian aid. Secondly, this is not a binding commitment. That means that there really isn't any legal requirement to provide that money going forward.

Trump's Skepticism

There is no way around it. The former (and possibly future) U.S. President Donald Trump might be the most talked-about person at and around the summit without even being there. The Republican National Convention, where Trump officially will be nominated as the party's presidential candidate, will kick off just four days after the summit. It's simply hard not to escape the idea that the NATO summit, in one way or another, will become part of the presidential election campaign.

And many of the decisions and messages coming out from the meeting will be a response to his skepticism of the alliance and of his lukewarm support for Ukraine's war effort. The measures mentioned above, like providing Kyiv with a solid financial foundation for the years ahead and to institutionalize training and military deliveries, have been described by alliance officials as "Trump-proofing" in case he returns to power and attempts to unpick decisions already made.

And then there is the military spending by European allies that has been the big bugbear for Trump. Previously he has called those states that didn't reach NATO's own spending target of 2 percent of GDP on defense "delinquents" and noted the United States might not defend alliance members from a potential Russian invasion if they don't pay up, questioning the fundamental principle of NATO.

In response to this, you will hear a lot of figures about how much the allies have stepped up in recent years. In 2014, there was a pledge that in a decade all the members should reach the 2 percent target. That pledge has not entirely been met as 23 out of the 32 members today splash out that or more on its military. But NATO will be quick to point out that Europe and Canada have added over $640 billion extra in defense spending since then. You are also likely to hear that the 2024 figures will show an 18 percent increase in military expenditure compared to last year -- the biggest year-on-year increase for decades.

The Nuts And Bolts And China

Aside from the NATO-Ukraine Council on the leaders' level, there will be two other full working sessions at the summit. The first one will deal with the nuts and bolts of the alliance -- essentially how well-prepared NATO is in case it's attacked. And here, the jury is still out to a certain extent. Last year in Vilnius, a number of regional defense plans were adopted in order to defend "every inch of NATO territory."

Now it's about checking if the plans actually are working -- most importantly by seeing if the capabilities and logistics are in place. NATO has 500,000 troops on high readiness and is exercising at a scale not seen since the Cold War. But one well-placed NATO official conceded that the plans "are functional" but added cautiously, "If NATO was attacked today, they would work but there are pieces of the jigsaw still missing." It has been noted that air defense over the eastern part of the alliance is in short supply, but the bloc also needs more long-range missiles and tanks and must brush up on the logistical side.

The second session is dedicated to China. While the alliance is still focused on the Atlantic theater, it is clear that it is keeping a watchful eye on developments in the Pacific region and Chinese influence there -- a push that very much is dictated by the United States. Like the last two summits, the leaders of NATO's four "Asia-Pacific partners" -- Australia, Japan, New Zealand, and South Korea -- will be present at the meeting. Expect a lot of cooperation agreements to be signed in areas such as cyber defense and maritime security.

What Does The Future Hold?

Of course, all eyes will be on U.S. President Joe Biden, the host of the meeting, especially after his poor debate performance. Scrutiny will be enormous, but the question is how many media appearances he will make during the week.

At some point he should meet the press, but it is worth noting that he didn't hold a presser at the Vilnius summit either, which is unusual for American presidents; back then, he didn't even attend the leaders' dinner. He has to be more active here. Behind in the polls in key swing states, it is clear that his advisers will want the summit to be carefully choreographed for him to avoid any unnecessary mishaps.

But Biden is not the only leader of a big Western country fighting for political survival. French President Emmanuel Macron will arrive in Washington after a disappointing parliamentary election result. His mandate expires in 2027 but he may now be wing-clipped domestically and will struggle to enact meaningful legislation with both the left and far-right influential in the new chamber.

In Germany, Olaf Scholz and his coalition are also set to get a proper beating in next year's national elections, meaning that Berlin, Paris, and Washington in many ways are represented by leaders who are politically weak. At least the United Kingdom will have a freshly minted prime minister, Keir Starmer, the first Labour Party leader in Downing Street since 2010 and with a huge majority in Parliament backing him up.

There will be, in other words, a lot to deal with for incoming NATO Secretary-General Mark Rutte, who officially takes over from Jens Stoltenberg later this fall. Stoltenberg, one of the longest-serving heads of NATO with over a decade at the helm, will be missed, not least because of his ability to get along with most leaders and forge a consensus.

In that sense, Rutte will be something of a natural successor. Having recently stepped down as Dutch prime minister after 14 years, he is known for and used to coalition building. He is reportedly also a workaholic and a stickler for processes and rules, which is always good at a military organization. He appears to have mended bridges with previous foes, like Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and is well liked in most of the big capitals, notably in Berlin and Paris.

He apparently enjoys the respect of Trump to the degree that he is referred to as the "Trump whisperer." Even in public, he has been unfazed about a possible return of Trump, stating recently that "we (Europeans) have to dance with whoever is on the dance floor." And he will need to pull out his best moves in his hometown, The Hague, which will host the next big NATO summit in 2025.

That's all for this week. Feel free to reach out to me on any of these issues on X @RikardJozwiak, or on e-mail at jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition subscribe here.

Hungary, under national-conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, now holds the rotating EU Presidency. (file photo)
Hungary, under national-conservative Prime Minister Viktor Orban, now holds the rotating EU Presidency. (file photo)

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 drilling down on two issues: Hungary's turn to hold the EU Presidency and the latest on the top jobs in the EU and NATO.

Briefing #1: Bracing For The Hungarian EU Presidency

What You Need To Know: The European Union is bracing after Hungary took over the EU's rotating presidency on July 1. It could be an awkward six months for the EU leadership, given that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has been on a collision course with Brussels, watering down EU sanctions on Russia, preventing military and financial aid for Ukraine, and questioning Kyiv's EU aspirations.

Hungary, a self-styled "illiberal democracy," has been penalized for what officials in Brussels see as backsliding on democracy, with the EU freezing 6 billion euros ($6.4 billion) of funds meant for the Central European country.

Yet despite the thorny relationship, Hungary's stint as president in the second half of 2024 may not be as dramatic and problematic as some may fear.

The rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union, one of the main decision-making bodies of the bloc, which comprises government ministers from the member states, is alternately held for a period of six months by each of the member states. Under this arrangement, each member state has the opportunity to shape the council's agenda.

Deep Background: According to several sources in Brussels with knowledge of the issue, the Hungarian presidency isn't causing too many sleepless nights. This is largely due to two factors: the actual role of the presidency and the quirks of the political calendar.

Let's start with the first. The presidencies of the Council of the European Union are not what they used to be. There was a time when the country whose turn it was really did control the agenda, holding proper summits in their capitals and with their diplomats running the show behind the scenes.

This changed in 2004, when it was decided that all important summits should be held in the Belgian capital. The changes went deeper in 2009 with the advent of the EU's Lisbon Treaty, designed to improve the efficiency and democratic legitimacy of the EU, which created a number of new functions and essentially concentrated power in Brussels.

The Lisbon Treaty created a permanent president of the European Council, which mainly consists of the heads of state or government of the member states. The post is currently held by Belgian politician Charles Michel, who serves a five-year term and chairs all summits.

The council also has a much-expanded and powerful secretariat staffed by EU officials with expertise across all the policy fields. The Lisbon Treaty also created an EU foreign policy chief, currently held by Spanish politician Josep Borrell, and a diplomatic corps, the European External Action Service, to give the foreign policy position some heft. The main task of this person is to prepare and chair the monthly EU foreign affairs council where the bloc's foreign ministers meet to make decisions.

Drilling Down

  • How does this affect the Hungarian presidency? Well, it lessens the influence of the two most Brussels-bashing members of Hungary's national-conservative government, Orban and his foreign minister, Peter Szijjarto.
  • Budapest can, of course, still influence the conversation, as seen with the unveiling of their Donald Trump-inspired Make Europe Great Again (MEGA) slogan for the presidency last week. Hungary's bold move was dismissed as "trolling" by many in Brussels, with the feeling there would be more of that type of thing to come.
  • While the two men will still preside over informal ministerial meetings and even a summit in Budapest in November, their role will be fairly superficial. Notably, they will also have to face questions at press conferences and from foreign media, which they normally tend to shun.
  • What is concretely left for Hungary to do? Their other ministers, such as those responsible for agriculture or justice, will still chair council meetings in their fields, and Hungarian diplomats will do the same in preparatory working groups. The whole idea of the rotating presidency is that the incumbents are expected to be honest brokers, seeking consensus among member states.
  • Rather than causing trouble, Hungary might also decide to play nice. Speaking to officials from various member states, some have pointed out that while Hungary most certainly has an agenda -- and one that is often at odds with the consensus -- Hungarian officials have behaved professionally in the run-up to the presidency, underlining that everything will be done by the book.
  • The second factor that could curtail Hungarian ambitions to impose its agenda is the political calendar. The reality is that in the next six months, little will happen in Brussels in terms of new legislation. That's because the EU capital will be busy with appointing a new European Commission, the bloc's executive and proposer of new laws, a process that includes time-consuming hearings in the European Parliament to approve new commissioners (one from each member state). That process is expected to take up almost the entire fall, and Hungary has no role to play in the decision-making.
  • There has also been a frantic and largely successful attempt by the current Belgian presidency to clear the decks before Hungary assumed the role. That has meant signing off on a raft of new initiatives and policies. Another round of sanctions on Russia was passed on June 24; restrictive measures targeting Belarus are also expected to be agreed on June 26.
  • A green light was also given to Ukraine and Moldova to start accession talks on June 25. The process of screening the two EU candidates' various policy accession chapters is expected to take well over six months, and it's likely Budapest won't have to deal with Kyiv's EU accession at all and that it will be the next president of the EU Council, Poland, that will deal with this in 2025.
  • While Hungary has spoken out against Ukraine's readiness to join the EU, one of Budapest's priorities for the presidency is to advance the membership prospects of Albania and Serbia and possibly even those of Bosnia-Herzegovina and Georgia. (There probably won't be enough support from the member states to green-light the latter two.)
  • Ahead of Hungary's presidency, the EU even managed to send 1.4 billion euros ($1.5 billion) worth of military aid to support Ukraine in defending itself against Russia. This money comes from the profits from Russian assets frozen in the EU, and Brussels got around the Budapest veto on this measure by noting that Hungary abstained from the original decision to set aside this money, so legally it didn't have a say in how that money would be used.
  • This is a good illustration of how the Hungarian presidency might well play out. During the discussions in Brussels on this issue last week, the Hungarian representative stayed silent the whole time, essentially waving through the measure, whereas Szijjarto posted an angry rant on Facebook about the legality of the move to freeze Hungary out. This could be Hungary's game plan: being constructive and compliant in Brussels while screaming bloody murder to its audience at home.
  • Then there is the question of money and those frozen EU funds earmarked for Hungary. While the 1.4 billion euros for Ukraine was passed, a Hungarian veto is still hanging over seven other tranches of military aid, worth nearly 7 billion euros, for the war-torn country.
  • Hungary is used to bargaining with Brussels and could attempt to link its support for further military aid to Ukraine to the 6 billion euros of EU funds it wants Brussels to release. If Budapest doesn't comply with the EU's rule-of-law requirements by the end of the year, Hungary will permanently lose 1 billion euros. That's one deal that the Hungarians will be keen on making.

Briefing #2: The New Top Jobs In The EU And NATO

What You Need To Know: Both NATO and the European Union last week finalized who will lead them in the coming years. First, the ambassadors of the transatlantic military alliance on June 26 confirmed what has already been known for a few weeks -- that outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte will replace Jens Stoltenberg on October 1.

A day later, in another part of the Belgian capital, EU leaders gave Ursula von der Leyen another five-year-mandate as European Commission president. They also chose former Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa to replace Charles Michel as the president of the European Council and Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas to replace Josep Borrell as the bloc's foreign policy chief. It's not all in the bag yet for von der Leyen and Kallas, as they also need to be confirmed in European Parliament votes. For the former, the vote would take place in mid-July, whereas Kallas will face grueling hearings later in the fall.

So, if approved, what could we expect from these new leaders? First, a disclaimer: While personalities have an impact and their positions certainly carry weight, they are not deciding policy on their own. In the EU, as well as NATO, all important decisions are still made by member states via unanimity on issues such as sanctions and expanding membership.

In many ways Rutte, Costa, and Kallas will be chairing and cajoling an unruly set of leaders (foreign ministers, in the case of Kallas). While they will be the outward face for their respective institutions, their main task will essentially be to forge consensus on important decisions.

Deep Background: Of all of them, von der Leyen is politically the most powerful. The European Commission is the bloc's executive and proposer of new legislation. It can take its member states to court, negotiate trade deals, and police the EU's common market (as U.S. tech firms and Chinese companies have experienced after receiving large fines). The commission oversees a budget worth 2 trillion euros ($2.15 trillion) with considerable freedom of how to disperse and withhold that cash.

There is every reason to believe that von der Leyen will continue to be an influential leader, especially given Europe is facing something of a power vacuum. French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to get a battering in the parliamentary elections in July and likely to be something of a lame duck until his term expires in 2027, and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz will likely be booted out of office by voters next year. The unenviable task of being the bulwark against growing populist forces both inside and outside the bloc may well fall to von der Leyen.

The political leadership in Ukraine will be happy that she is staying on. She has consistently championed Kyiv, helping to secure long-term funding even when "Ukraine fatigue" crept into other parts of the bloc. She was also instrumental in securing EU candidate status for the country, as well as Georgia and Moldova. This year, she also championed a 6 billion-euro plan for EU hopefuls in the Western Balkans.

Drilling Down

  • An issue for von der Leyen has been her supposedly fractious relationship with outgoing European Council President Michel, which was the source of endless Brussels gossip.
  • The institutional dysfunction could be a thing of the past, as von der Leyen apparently gets on famously with the incoming Costa, and the Portuguese prime minister appears liked by most EU heads of state and government. Articulate in both English and French, a number of EU officials, speaking on background as they aren't authorized to speak on the record, have told me that the 62-year-old is unlikely to be as fiercely ambitious as his younger predecessor and might even regard this job as his final contribution to high-level politics.
  • He also enjoys widespread respect in the Global South, and, with his father being half-Goan, half-Mozambican, Costa will be the first ever leader of an EU institution who is non-white.
  • There are, however, some qualms, notably surrounding his resignation as prime minister last year in the wake of revelations that some of his aides were involved in questionable investment deals for green hydrogen projects. While no longer under investigation, it's seen as a blemish on his record.
  • And that leads us to Kallas, a Russia hawk who has made it onto Moscow's wanted list. Her dislike of the Kremlin made her, at least in some Western capitals, unsuitable for the job of NATO secretary-general, a position she was also in the running for. Russia aside, she has been vocal about Georgia's democratic backsliding and, while she is an ardent enlargement supporter, it's thought she will be much tougher on Serbia than previous EU top diplomats. Many in Brussels wonder how her outspokenness to date will chime with the staffers of the EU's diplomatic corps. As a precautionary measure, Kallas has moderated her tone in recent months.
  • And what about NATO? In many ways, Rutte will be an extension of Stoltenberg, the longest serving secretary-general in the military organization's history. Like Stoltenberg, he is experienced (Dutch prime minister for 14 years) and well-liked by leaders from France, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. He is also known for being able to strike political compromises after heading numerous unwieldy multiparty governments in The Hague. Like Stoltenberg, Rutte is also thought to get on well with Ukraine's leadership and is reported to have the respect of former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Looking Ahead

All eyes will be fixed on the second round of the French parliamentary elections on July 7. Most indicators point to a trouncing of Macron's centrist bloc and big gains for both an alliance of left-wing groups and Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally (RN). A hung parliament, rather than an absolute majority for RN, appears to be the most likely outcome.

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 jozwiakr@rferl.org.

Until next time,

Rikard Jozwiak

If you enjoyed this briefing and don't want to miss the next edition, subscribe here.

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About The Newsletter

Wider Europe

The Wider Europe newsletter briefs you every Monday on key issues concerning the EU, NATO, and other institutions’ relationships with the Western Balkans and Europe’s Eastern neighborhoods.

For more than a decade as a correspondent in Brussels, Rikard Jozwiak covered all the major events and crises related to the EU’s neighborhood and how various Western institutions reacted to them -- the war in Georgia, the annexation of Crimea, Russia’s support for separatists in eastern Ukraine, the downing of MH17, dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo, the EU and NATO enlargement processes in the Western Balkans, as well as visa liberalizations, free-trade deals, and countless summits.

Now out of the “Brussels bubble,” but still looking in -- this time from the heart of Europe, in Prague -- he continues to focus on the countries where Brussels holds huge sway, but also faces serious competition from other players, such as Russia and, increasingly, China.

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