NI deal scuppers hopes for Theresa May to become Natos secretary general

Kay Burley grills Kwasi Kwarteng on Northern Ireland Protocol

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“Until this mess over Northern Ireland is sorted out, the consensus is that we can dismiss any hope of a UK candidate getting the job,“  said an alliance source last night. Mandarins have already begun the informal process of assessing who will replace Jens Stoltenberg as Nato chief next year, at what is a crucial point in the alliance’s history. The former Norwegian PM has been in office since 2014 and his four-year mandate was extended for a further two years to  ensure stability at a time of tension with Donald Trump and Russian assertiveness.

But his replacement next year comes at a time when leading members like Germany and France, who want warmer relations with Vladimir Putin and more European self-reliance, are forcing Nato to justify its very existence.

Besides Russia, priority issues like China, Ukraine and the worsening situation in Afghanistan each exposes fault lines within the alliance.

Some parameters have already been set, however.

Behind the scenes, there is already a consensus that it is time for Nato to have its first female Secretary General and, since former Danish PM Anders Rasmussen took the helm in 2009, it is now expected that they will have served as head of government.

However, this is the point where agreement ends. While some member states are already indicating a desire for a Baltic candidate as a show of strength against neighbouring Russia, others fear this would provoke Russia too much at a time when the US seeks normalisation with Putin so it can focus on the bigger China problem.

One candidate that might appeal to both sides of the divide is Estonian president Kersti Kaljulaid, generally praised for her measured approach to Russia.  

But the 51-year-old, who came to power in 2016 as both Estonia’s first female head of state and its youngest, has not ruled out running for a second term in 2023.

And there is also the fact that, with an Eastern European already holding the position of deputy secretary general, there may be a desire to look further west.

Italy, which hasn’t held the post for a full term since 1980 and lobbied hard in 2014, reportedly considers that its turn has come for the top job.  

But last night the possibility of former EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, who has expressed an interest, was rejected out of hand by one Nato diplomat, who said: “Quelle horreur -dialogue is always important but no-one wants to turn Nato into a dialogue shop.”

This leaves another name in a seemingly powerful position: Theresa May.

Britain, which already holds the post of Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Europe, is expected to make a strong push to seal it’s post-Brexit status.

As one of the so-called Nato quad – along with the US, France and Germany – the UK remains one of Nato’s strongest military allies in Europe and the former PM ticks several boxes.

Her galvanisation of the international community against Russia after the Salisbury attacks will appease Eastern European nations while showing she can be persuasive, while her status as a Remainer and wish for a soft Brexit may assuage hardline Europhiles.

But the bid may fail on political grounds.

Stoltenberg’s replacement will be announced in July’s Nato summit in Spain, following a nebulous process of backroom chats and gaining informal consensus before the North Atlantic Council – Nato’s governing body – selects a candidate.

“The process is really just beginning but, as things stand, there is already a growing consensus about not giving the job to the UK unless this Northern Ireland mess is resolved,” said a Nato source last night.

“Nato is not a political alliance, it is a voluntary alliance of 30 member states who share the same ideals and concerns and, of those, only seven are not in the EU or EEA.

There is a lot of frustration felt in Brussels towards the UK at the moment and it is not always easy to keep matters that don’t directly relate to defence out of it.”

Fabrice Pothier, former director of Nato policy planning,  said “Theresa May should have a credible shot. There is an interest in keeping the UK a strong player in the Euro Atlantic tent, she handled the Skripal affair well and, as a former PM, can pick up the phone and talk to heads of government rather than just defence ministers.

“But, though allies should be capable of compartmentalising things, the Biden administration feels quite strongly about the Northern Ireland protocol issue – it’s personal for him. When you add this to the political dissatisfaction from some EU members it may make a difference.”

However, he said another potential candidate, May’s former national security adviser and Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill, may clinch the UK a victory of sorts

“It could mean that Sedwill, who is considered both capable and credible, is offered the role of Deputy Secretary General as a consolation prize.”

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