Mark Rutte’s Nato leadership bid marches on

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Good morning. Nato foreign ministers meeting today will discuss plans to secure a five-year military aid package of up to $100bn, in a bid to shield Ukraine from “winds of political change” that could usher in a second Trump presidency.

Here, I report on the progress of Mark Rutte’s bid to become Nato’s next leader — which will also be informally discussed by the ministers — while our UK public policy editor reports on efforts by one EU body to make relations with the UK a little smoother.

Final four

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte has won over all but four Nato countries for his bid to become the alliance’s next secretary-general, with officials confident he can seal a full house before July’s leaders’ summit.

Context: Nato head Jens Stoltenberg will step down this autumn after a decade in the role. Rutte, who has been prime minister for 14 years, has the support of 28 member states, including the US, UK, France and Germany. A decision requires unanimity.

Foreign ministers from Nato’s 32 member states will meet in Brussels today and informal discussions over the alliance’s next leader will feature. Rutte needs to win over Hungary, Slovakia, Turkey and Romania.

The first three have bilateral irritations. Rutte in 2021, during an EU tussle over a Hungarian anti-LGBT law, said his goal was “to bring Hungary to its knees on this issue”. Turkey has long called for a non-EU candidate to succeed Norwegian Stoltenberg. Romania has its own candidate — President Klaus Iohannis, Rutte’s only official rival.

Iohannis’ candidacy is not seen as a real alternative to Rutte by almost all other member states, which Nato diplomats said meant pressure was rising on the holdouts to fold in behind Rutte in the name of alliance unity.

“There is ongoing debate across the alliance on the qualifications of both of these very impressive leaders, and we will continue to debate the pros and cons of those two individuals until we reach consensus on one of them,” said Julianne Smith, US ambassador to Nato.

“I think at the latest we’d like to see this settled by the Washington summit,” she told reporters. “I think you’re well aware that the US position is that we fully back Mark Rutte.”

Chart du jour: Role reversal

Line chart of Gross domestic product index (Q4 2017=100) showing Southern European economies have been outperforming Germany

The four biggest southern European economies have outgrown Germany by about 5 per cent since 2017, a two-speed eurozone recovery that flips the EU’s traditional economic narrative.

Baby steps

Arguably one of the biggest casualties of Brexit was the impact it had on the ability of young Britons and Europeans to mingle — living, working or studying in each others’ countries became a whole load harder.

But pressure is now growing on both sides of the English Channel to address this, with the European Commission recently taking soundings from EU member states on what an acceptable EU-wide “youth mobility scheme” might look like, writes Peter Foster.

Context: More than four years on from Britain’s departure from the EU, officials are eyeing ways to deepen the relationship, particularly given the likely win by the UK’s centre-left Labour party at elections set to take place this year.

Adding somewhat to the momentum on the EU side is a policy paper by a committee on EU-UK youth engagement at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC), an advisory body to the EU institutions which represents the voices of civil society groups.

A draft of the paper seen by the FT, which is due to be debated today, urges the commission “to approach the UK Government about the possibility of negotiating an ambitious reciprocal youth mobility partnership”.

The EESC wants to see “structured engagement” between EU and UK youth representative bodies, as well as fixes for issues covering the creative industries, the Erasmus student exchange schemes and group passports for EU school trips heading to the UK.

Pressure is also building from UK civil society groups, like Best for Britain which campaigns for re-engagement with the EU which last year released a poll showing that 68 per cent of Britons want to see the UK negotiate a reciprocal YMS agreement.

Naomi Smith, the chief executive of Best for Britain, says the EESC paper shows that the “planets are now aligning” for a deal. “It’s time the UK Government signed up to a reciprocal EU-UK Youth Mobility Scheme and allowed British students back into Erasmus,” she says.

Labour has not officially confirmed it will seek a youth mobility scheme given the fissile nature of immigration as an issue in UK politics. 

Any agreement will also have to be squared away among 27 EU member states that can have competing views about what should be covered by such a deal.

What to watch today

  1. Nato foreign ministers meet in Brussels, arrivals from 11.00am.

  2. Informal meeting of EU transport ministers, arrivals from 09.15am.

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