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French opposition could scupper the Defence Secretary's bid to replace Jens Stoltenberg

By Joe Barnes, Brussels Correspondent

Sunday Telegraph – 17 June 2023

Emmanuel Macron is trying to block Ben Wallace from becoming the next NATO secretary-general because the UK has left the European Union. The Defence Secretary has been touted as a potential successor to Jens Stoltenberg when the Norwegian’s mandate comes to an end this autumn. The front-runner to replace him is Danish prime minister Mette Frederiksen. However, The Telegraph understands that French officials have told NATO colleagues that they want a figurehead from the EU. The move is part of a push from France to make the bloc militarily independent and less reliant on Washington for its security. A source told The Telegraph:

“He is not from an EU member state. Many countries, mainly France, insist the next secretary-general must come from an EU country.”

Mr Macron is supported by Germany and a majority of the bloc’s 22 members that are also part of NATO. The Netherlands and Poland are understood to be among the EU countries that could break away to back a British candidate.

Britain must face 'consequences'

French officials have reportedly raised concerns over the state of the British Armed Forces because of budget cuts, while Mr Macron previously announced that France would boost military spending by more than a third by 2030. Mr Macron, who has long argued that Britain must face “consequences” for leaving the EU, has been instrumental in Brussels’ plans for a 5,000-strong rapid reaction “land, air and maritime” force. Critics argue the move would diminish NATO’s role as Europe’s main security guarantor.

Under the EU’s plans, the military force will include Special Forces troops, intelligence operatives, medical and evacuation personnel, as well as air and sealift units. It is hoped the force would be able to be used to enforce ceasefires, secure airlifts, safely evacuate EU nationals from hostile environments and provide emergency humanitarian assistance. Other tasks are likely to include intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance. It would be backed up by a command headquarters manned by 350 EU officials capable of planning and running deployment operations.

The proposals, championed by France and Germany, were drawn up in the wake of the flawed withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021, when EU leaders argued that they needed the ability to act independently of NATO and the US. Paris recently demanded that non-EU firms should not be handed major contracts by the bloc as it seeks to buy a million rounds of 155mm artillery ammunition to help bolster Ukraine’s supplies.

Mr Wallace is well-regarded for his leadership over the Russian invasion of Ukraine but French opposition could scupper his ambition to become NATO’s next secretary-general. He told German media recently:

“I’ve always said it would be a good job. That’s a job I’d like. But I’m also loving the job I do now.”

Sir Julian Lewis, a former chairman of the Commons defence committee, said:

“The Nato alliance is, and always has been, a means of aligning the defence of sovereign states in Europe with that of the USA.

“To prevent the admirable Ben Wallace from becoming NATO Secretary General, just because we have left the European Union, shows wilful disregard of the different roles of the two organisations and undermines the cohesion of the alliance.”

In an attempt to avoid disagreements over the next NATO secretary-general becoming a public spat, it is now most likely Mr Stoltenberg’s mandate will be temporarily extended. Joe Biden reportedly urged him to stay in the role when they met in the White House earlier this week. The US President argued there was no room for uncertainty as the war in Ukraine entered a critical stage.

Mr Wallace has described the NATO role as a “great job” and has the backing of Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to pursue the role. A French veto over Mr Wallace’s candidacy could trigger another incident in a long-running series of cross-Channel rows with Britain.

The former Norwegian prime minister, who has led NATO for almost a decade, has insisted he wants to walk away from the role. But extending his time in office would allow him to complete the task of securing Sweden’s NATO membership. Mr Stoltenberg has made it a personal mission to oversee talks with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to his veto the Nordic nation from joining. However, front runner Ms Frederiksen could also be blocked by France amid concerns a third consecutive Nordic secretary-general would create an imbalance within NATO favouring its northern members. Turkey is also understood to have wielded a veto over her candidacy after the Danish ambassador to Ankara was summoned when a Quran and Turkish flag were set alight outside the Turkish embassy in Copenhagen.