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Britain not meeting target it was supposed to urge other EU countries to meet, calculation says

By Jon Stone, Political Correspondent

Independent Online – 14 February 2017

The Government faces embarrassment at a key NATO summit tomorrow after an analysis warned the UK is no longer meeting the alliance’s spending target. Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon is due to head to Brussels for a NATO defence ministers’ meeting just 24 hours after the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) said Britain was no longer spending two per cent of GDP on defence.

The calculations are particularly key as Theresa May promised Donald Trump just last month that she would encourage other European countries to meet the alliance’s target – in exchange for his “100 per cent” commitment to NATO. Sir Michael’s meeting would have been a key opportunity for the Government to encourage the spending targets. The warnings that the UK itself is not meeting the target are likely pull the rug out from under the UK’s position, however.

Two influential Conservative select committee chairs with oversight of international affairs and defence said the Government needed to re-think its approach.

The UK was previously one of just five NATO countries to meet the target, but now, along with Poland, it has fallen below the line. Now only the United States, Estonia and Greece meet the spending pledge. US President Donald Trump said during his election campaign that the US should consider not coming to the military aid of countries that were not meeting the two per cent target.

In its regular briefing The Military Balance the IISS said the UK was now spending just 1.98 per cent of GDP. This amounts to a £380m shortfall, they said. A spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence rejected the figures.

“These figures are wrong: NATO’s own figures clearly show that the UK spends over two per cent of its GDP on defence,”

he said.

“Our defence budget is the biggest in Europe, the second largest in NATO, and it is growing each year as we invest £178bn in new equipment and the UK steps up globally, with new ships, submarines and aircraft over the next decade.”

Nia Griffith, Labour’s shadow Defence Secretary, said the Government had

“changed its accounting methods [to] give the illusion of keeping the commitment”.

She branded the breach

“utterly unacceptable. This report exposes the Government’s complete and shocking failure to maintain its commitment on defence spending to our Armed Forces and to the country,”

she said.

“Just weeks after the Prime Minister was lecturing our allies about increasing spending to meet the two per cent NATO commitment, it is now clear that her Government is unwilling to commit the necessary resources to our nation’s defences. As the Defence Select Committee has shown, the MoD was already barely scraping over the two per cent mark and had changed its accounting methods to give the illusion of keeping the commitment. To be spending less than two per cent of GDP on defence is utterly unacceptable, particularly in this time of immense global uncertainty. Labour is committed to spending at least two per cent of our GDP on defence spending, as we consistently did when in Government.”

Dr Julian Lewis, the Conservative chair of the Commons Defence Select Committee, told the Independent that whether the target had been barely met or not was not the most important issue.

“This shows the danger of just scraping over the line of a minimum figure. People keep talking about the 2 per cent as if it’s a target – it’s not a target, it’s a minimum guideline that countries should spend at least 2 per cent. It’s a bit like arguing on the head of a pin whether you’ve scraped over the line,”

he said.

"The reality is that – whether the IISS is right or not – 2 per cent isn’t nearly good enough in terms of the strategic threat picture that confronts us today."

Last year his Committee produced research showing that the UK had for decades spend substantially more than 2 per cent – in the 1980s often double that figure.

Foreign Affairs Select Committee chair Crispin Blunt told the Independent that the Government needed to completely re-think not just the defence budget but the way it allocated money to departments that represented British interests abroad.

“It shows that we need proper debate about actually how we secure our country and its international interests and whether these ring-fenced budgets are really the right way to do it,”

he said. He noted that, unlike the NATO target and the aid budget, the Foreign Office budget was not protected. He said the department had been “institutionally hollowed out”, lacking the expertise to represent the UK abroad.

Also speaking today NATO’s secretary general Jens Stoltenberg said that

“fair burden-sharing and increased defence spending underpins the trans-Atlantic alliance”.

He added that some allies were “really struggling”.

Dr Giegerich, IISS director of defence and military analysis, said he expected Britain's defence spending would continue to fall as a share of GDP.

“We have for 2016 the spending at £38.3bn. In dollar terms at $52.5bn. That equates to 1.98 per cent of GDP,”

he told a briefing in London.

“The obvious point here is that British GDP growth for 2016 was estimated to be 1.8 per cent and defence spending therefore grew at a slower rate and hence you have that development. Now if you project forward, unless that situation changes this trend will be the direction of travel.”