Dutch PM caught between in-fighting NATO allies Macron and Trump

Mark Rutte and Donald Trump
Mark Rutte and Donald TrumpPhoto: The White House/Flickr

With reporting by Janene Pieters.

Prime Minister Mark Rutte is attending a two-day NATO summit in London on Tuesday and Wednesday. The conference is already off to a rocky start, with American president Donald Trump clashing with French president Emmanuel Macron, and a number of sensitive topics still on the agenda.

The summit started after Trump lashed out at French president Macron, who recently called NATO "brain dead" and said that Europe is on the brink of collapse. The French president said he wants to tax American products, because of the recent tariffs the United States implemented on European products. Trump said he was "very insulted" by Macron's statements, and said that France needs NATO the most of everyone. 

When asked about the spat, Rutte joked, "That's an interesting question," getting a laugh from the crowd. "I do think Emmanuel Macron made some valid points in his Economist article, where he talked about the need for Europe to step up, the need for Europe and the U.S. and Canada to stay engaged," Rutte said during a panel discussion on Tuesday with Canadian leader Justin Trudeau. He added that he had frequently tried to convince former U.S. President Barack Obama to team up with Europe to negotiate collectively and more successfully with Asian nations.

"I was not in agreement with his assessment of 'brain dead,'" he said. "We can have differences of opinion. The worst thing we can do is not to discuss them because that would be the end of NATO."

About the Trump administration's accusations that the Netherlands does not spend enough on defense and NATO, Rutte said that the country is spending substantially more than it had spent in recent years, and was moving towards hitting the budgeting goals agreed with other allied nations by 2024. He committed to continue moving towards that target if the VVD is part of the next coalition government with elections scheduled in early 2021.

"We cannot have the U.S. shoulder all the burden, and [Trump] is completely right when he requires from all of us that we do what we need to do," Rutte said.

Rutte may be caught in the middle of these two headbutting presidents. In the past he has been known to express support for Trump and said that the Netherlands and other countries should do their best to work with him instead of just fighting him. At the same time, he always expressed a pro-European Union stance, and support for "rules-based international order and multilateral cooperation". 

The Netherlands was also hit by the Trump administrations' taxes, with 25 percent import tariffs applying to about half of Dutch cheese exports to the US. 

Jaap de Hoop Scheffer, the former NATO Secretary General and Dutch politician, spoke to RTL Nieuws about the need to celebrate NATO despite trade and budget arguments between allied nations. "You must always have a party, but if political fuss arises within NATO - and it is there at the moment - then the champagne corks also will pop in Moscow, because Putin is keen on one thing. The more division in NATO, the better."

That said, Rutte was not concerned about NATO's ability to survive such divisions.

"I'm convinced [NATO] will be there in 70 years' time. It is the strongest, most powerful defense organization in world history. It's crucial for the safety of Europe, but it's also crucial for the safety of Canada and the U.S.," Rutte said. "NATO is there to stay."

Rutte is accompanied by Ministers Stef Blok of Foreign Affairs and Ank Bijleveld of Defense. On Tuesday they will be received by Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace. On Wednesday they will attend work sessions to discuss the topics on the agenda.

One of the topics on the agenda for Wednesday, is the NATO countries' defense spending. The agreed upon standard is that every country spends two percent of its GDP on Defense, but the vast majority of countries - including the Netherlands - have not achieved this target. This year nine of the total 29 NATO countries meet the 2 percent standard, according to NOS.

Another topic on the agenda, is the Turkish attack on neighboring Syria - an assault that happened with about NATO partners being informed about it. Many allies are also concerned by Turkey's purchase of a Russian anti-missile system, according to the broadcaster. Shortly before the start of the summit, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that he requires full support from the allies in his fight against terrorists - what he calls Kurdish fighting groups, many of which supported the anti-ISIS coalition. If Turkey does not get support from other NATO countries, Erdogan will turn against the defense plans for the Baltic countries. 

The NATO leaders will also discuss Russia, the future of arms control, improving the preparedness of their armed forces, new technologies, and the rise of China.