Brussels (AFP) – NATO defence ministers met in Brussels on Wednesday to discuss Washington’s concerns over the European Union’s new plans to deepen defense ties between its members, and increasingly strained U.S.-Turkey relations.
Washington and Ankara, two of the transatlantic alliance’s most important members, are at loggerheads over Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria. U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday warned it was detracting from the fight against the Islamic State group.
The two-day meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels is expected to approve changes to the alliance’s command structure.
It aims to meet the challenges of warfare in the 21st century, particularly cyber attacks and other novel “hybrid warfare” tactics, as fears grow about Russian assertiveness.
But a working dinner with E.U. diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini later Wednesday has taken on greater significance after senior US officials voiced fears about the impact the bloc’s new landmark defence pact could have on the balance of power in NATO.
The E.U.’s so-called permanent structured cooperation on defence agreement, known as PESCO, has projects in view already to develop new military equipment and improve cooperation and decision-making.
But on Sunday a senior official working with U.S. Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Washington had concerns that some of the proposed initiatives risked “pulling resources or capabilities away from NATO”.
Despite the concerns of the United States, the alliance’s most powerful member, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the right balance could be struck.
“Done in the right way, these efforts can make a contribution to fairer burden-sharing between Europe and North America,” Stoltenberg told reporters as he arrived for talks with NATO defence ministers on Wednesday.
U.S. President Donald Trump has repeatedly urged allies to increase their share of spending to ease Washington’s burden.
On Tuesday Stoltenberg said the E.U.’s efforts to boost its defence spending under the pact were welcome, but only if they were coordinated with NATO plans. He warned there was “no way” the E.U. could replace the transatlantic alliance in guaranteeing European security.
“It will be absolutely without any meaning if NATO and the E.U. start to compete,” the former Norwegian premier told reporters.
“European allies are absolutely aware that the defence, the protection of Europe is dependent on NATO.”
On Tuesday US ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison ramped up the pressure, warning the E.U. that there could be serious consequences if it shuts U.S. defence companies out of cooperation projects.
“Certainly we do not want this to be a protectionist vehicle for the E.U. and we’re going to watch carefully, because if that becomes the case then it could splinter the strong security alliance that we have,” she told reporters.
The U.S. concerns have surprised some European diplomats. One insisted that E.U. defence cooperation poses no threat to NATO and “a little explanatory work” is required to clarify matters with the Americans.
Wednesday’s dinner now represents an important chance for Mogherini to reassure the United States, which is NATO’s biggest contributor.
Potentially more serious is the festering row between the United States and Turkey over Ankara’s “Operation Olive Branch”, launched last month against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).
While Turkey views the YPG as a “terrorist” group, the United States has been working closely with the militia against the Islamic State group in Syria and giving it weapons, infuriating Ankara.
U.S. ambassador Hutchison said Turkey remained an important ally and the two sides were trying to resolve the dispute.
Mattis is to meet his Turkish counterpart on the sidelines of the meeting on Wednesday in what the allies said is a bilateral issue.
“I don’t see any role at all for NATO,” German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen told reporters when asked what NATO could do to defuse tension.
“But of course these developments (regarding the YPG) are of great concern to us and they will be part of the talks which are happening today.”