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Germany offers expert group in bid to end NATO rift

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, is welcomed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg after arriving for a NATO Foreign Ministers meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (Francisco Seco / AP)
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, is welcomed by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg after arriving for a NATO Foreign Ministers meeting at the NATO headquarters in Brussels, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (Francisco Seco / AP)
By Lorne Cook Associated Press

BRUSSELS – Germany sought Wednesday to ease French worries about NATO by offering to set up a group of experts to examine the alliance’s security challenges after President Emmanuel Macron lamented the “brain death” of the military organization.

Macron’s public criticism of NATO – notably, a perceived lack of U.S. leadership, concerns about an unpredictable Turkey since it invaded northern Syria without warning its allies, and the need for Europe to take on more security responsibilities – has shaken the alliance.

At a meeting of NATO foreign ministers in Brussels, Germany’s Heiko Maas said that the 29-nation trans-Atlantic alliance is “Europe’s life insurance and we want it to remain so.“ He said the aim should be to prevent “break-away tendencies“ within NATO.

To ensure that doesn’t happen, Maas told reporters, the “political arm“ of NATO must be strengthened.

“We should get advice from experts, from people who understand these issues,“ he said.

Maas declined to elaborate or comment on who might be part of this expert commission, saying he was more interested in how Germany’s partners react to the proposal. France’s response to the offer should indicate whether NATO’s internal differences can quickly be papered over.

Macron’s choice of words was rejected as “drastic” by German Chancellor Angela Merkel the day after they were published in The Economist magazine. Senior U.S. and European officials have since piled on, leaving France feeling isolated for speaking out.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg heads to Paris next week for talks with Macron, tentatively scheduled for Nov. 28. On the eve of the Brussels meeting, Stoltenberg said the best way to resolve differences “is to sit down and to discuss them and to fully understand the messages and the motivations.”

Asked Wednesday why Macron’s stance has angered allies or might hurt NATO, Stoltenberg said, without mentioning France, that “there is no way to deny that there are disagreements on issues like trade, like climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and also simply on how to deal with the situation in northeast Syria.”

But he added: “We have to overcome these disagreements, because it is so essential both for Europe and the United States that we stand united.”

The rift bodes ill for a Dec. 3-4 summit of NATO leaders in London, where U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to once again demand that the Europeans and Canada step up defense spending. That meeting comes amid impeachment hearings in the U.S., and in the heat of a British election campaign.

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