Free rider no more? Belgium and the NATO Madrid Summit
When Paul-Henri Spaak signed the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, he did so full of confidence and pride. Today, however, the Belgian position in NATO is under great pressure. Our diplomats warn that we are increasingly being regarded as stowaways because we are not fulfilling our commitments.
Free rider no more? Belgium and the NATO Madrid Summit
When Paul-Henri Spaak signed the North Atlantic Treaty in 1949, he did so full of confidence and pride. Today, however, the Belgian position in NATO is under great pressure. Our diplomats warn that we are increasingly being regarded as stowaways because we are not fulfilling our commitments. This is problematic, because in recent years the alliance has once again developed into the central forum for guaranteeing European security. The Russian war against Ukraine shows why collective defence is a bitter necessity. The nuclear threats from Moscow also show why European defence cannot be organised without the US and the UK. When Prime Minister Alexander De Croo makes his appearance at the NATO Madrid summit next week, an exercise in diplomatic damage control will therefore be in order. How can the government bring this to a successful conclusion?
Within the Vivaldi coalition government, the NATO discussion is being wrongly narrowed down to a matter of finances. After much wrangling, the government agreed last Saturday to promise that the defence budget would increase further to 2% of GDP in the 2030-2035 timeframe. The many strings attached to this – which impose unilateral demands on our partners – mean that this promise will generate little diplomatic credit, quite the opposite. Like the coalition agreement itself, this promise shows that this government has no vision for NATO policy. Yet our country, as a founding member, is just as much a part of the alliance as of the EU. Moreover, the membership application of Finland and Sweden makes it clear that NATO (and not the EU) is the real forum for defence matters. If Belgium wants to avoid ending up in a position of total isolation, it is essential to shift the focus from the sterile 2% discussion to the more substantive NATO-dossiers that are of strategic importance for our country.
Within NATO, a new force model outlining how the integrated collective defence should look like is being sketched out today. This will lead to new, jointly agreed objectives regarding which tasks each individual ally must take on. This constitutes the organizational framework within which the Belgian Defence fits into a larger whole. It is therefore of utmost importance to take these needs as a guide for our future military investments and recruitment. Much more than the 2% discussion, this is the real benchmark of burden-sharing within the alliance. Note that all the allies have already committed themselves at the Brussels summit in 2021 to implement these objectives in full. For our country, this will include an additional purchase of F35 fighter planes, as well as further reinforcement of the land forces with heavy firepower. This is the main task awaiting the Minister of Defence in the next legislative period.
A second important discussion concerns NATO common funding. This includes the costs for the different NATO headquarters and common investment programmes for capabilities such as the AWACS radar aircraft, amounting to some 2.5 billion Euros per year. These are divided among the thirty allies according to their gross national income; for Belgium this amounts to about 2.1% of the total. Secretary General Stoltenberg is insisting on a substantial increase of this common funding to support the alliance’s new posture. Since both the political and military-strategic headquarters are located on the Belgian territory, a disproportionate part of this budget flows back into the local economy. It would therefore be only logical for us to wholeheartedly support this proposal for joint investments: this concerns the real backbone of the organisation, anchoring it on our national territory.
A third focal area concerns the Belgian contribution to NATO’s nuclear deterrence. This is by far our most important role in the common defence. As the nuclear threat has increased significantly, NATO’s new Strategic Concept will place much greater emphasis on this dimension. The most vulnerable allies in Central and Eastern Europe are counting on us to ensure that any potential conflict with Russia remains below the nuclear threshold – precisely because its escalation would entail unacceptable costs for all concerned. However, to the discontent of many allies, Belgium participated as an observer in the conference of the ill-fated nuclear ban treaty last week. Instead of symbolically undermining NATO’s deterrence strategy, it would be advisable to highlight our nuclear role with greater conviction.
For more than seventy years, Belgium has enjoyed peace, freedom and relative prosperity thanks to the alliance – despite periods of geopolitical tension and sometimes existential threat. Belgian diplomacy and defence have helped shape the alliance to a significant degree, and, with the necessary political support, could continue to play a central role in its future. Just as in 1949, this is fundamentally a matter of once again taking our own defence to heart with pride and confidence: choosing to be a free rider no more.
Prof Dr Alexander Mattelaer is Senior Research Fellow at Egmont – the Royal Institute for International Relations – and the Vice Dean for Research at the VUB Brussels School of Governance.
This article was published in Dutch in De Tijd and in French in L’Echo.
(Photo credit: Prime Minister of Belgium’s website)