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Germany’s foreign minister has pushed back strongly against Rex Tillerson as the US secretary of state ramps up demands for more military spending by Nato allies in Europe.
The escalating wrangle over spending was set to dominate talks in Brussels where Mr Tillerson and Sigmar Gabriel, his new German counterpart, are attending their first Nato meeting since taking office.
Donald Trump, US president, has railed against Nato allies for not meeting a long-term target to bring defence spending towards a long-term target of 2 per cent of economic output. In private talks with ministers, Mr Tillerson said Nato’s ability to secure the transatlantic community depended on increased spending by allies.
But Mr Gabriel said there was no 2 per cent target as such, adding that there was more to security than military spending.
“It’s totally unrealistic to believe that Germany would increase its defence spending from €35bn now to €70bn,” he told reporters as he arrived in Brussels.
“We are increasing our defence spending. We are doing more.”
Nato figures show that German military expenditure is estimated to have risen to 1.2 per cent of gross domestic product in 2016 from 1.18 per cent in 2015. Allies agreed in 2014 to work towards a 2 per cent threshold by 2024, although Mr Trump insists they should move faster.
But Mr Gabriel said Berlin would have put €70bn into its armed forces if military spending reached 2 per cent. “I know no politician in Germany who thinks that this is something you can reach or that it even would be desirable to do so.”
The minister’s comments represent a hardening of his position as the country heads for a general election in the autumn. They stand as an abrupt challenge to Mr Tillerson, who told reporters in brief remarks that he wanted to ensure the alliance “has all of the resources, financial and otherwise, that are necessary for Nato to fulfill its mission.”
Chancellor Angela Merkel and others in her centre-right CDU party have signaled their commitment to the 2 per cent spending goal. But the intervention of Mr Gabriel, a Social Democrat, suggests the question of defence spending will emerge as an election issue.
Only five of 28 Nato members meet the 2 per cent threshold, prompting Mr Trump to accuse allies of freeloading on American defence largesse during his election campaign. Senior figures in his administration have qualified American support for the organisation even as they say insist the US remains committed to Nato.
The Nato meeting had been planned for next week, but it was brought forward to Friday after Mr Tillerson said he could not attend due to a summit with president Xi Jinping of China, who will visit Mr Trump at his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida.
Nato has pressed allies to adopt a plan to boost spending at a meeting of leaders in May at which Mr Trump will open the new headquarters of the alliance in Brussels.
But a senior Nato official said there was no consensus among ministers about the division between spending, military capabilities and operational commitments in such plans. “There’s a recognition that we need to have further discussions around to see what the balance is between the three,” the official said.
At his first Nato meeting in February, defence secretary James Mattis threatened to moderate the US commitment to Nato if allies do not speed up plans to spend more on defence.
In his remarks on Friday to Nato ministers, Mr Tillerson said Mr Trump supported Nato and that the US will uphold its agreements we have made to defend our allies.
But he went on to say it was no longer sustainable for the US to maintain a “disproportionate share” of Nato defence spending.
Echoing Mr Mattis, he said allies that do not have a concrete plan to spend 2 percent of GDP on defence by 2024 should establish one immediately. “Allies that have a plan to reach the 2 percent guideline need to accelerate efforts and show results,” he said
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