In an exclusive interview, the U.K. defense minister, Michael Fallon, urged Germany and other European members of NATO to boost defense spending to protect the alliance.
Mr. Fallon said Britain’s relationship with the United States is evolving as the country seeks to negotiate its way out of the European Union. He defended the U.S. President Donald Trump, saying Mr. Trump, unlike Russian President Vladimir Putin, is not a threat to western interests.
Mr. Fallon spoke ahead of the Munich Security Conference with Torsten Riecke, Handelsblatt’s international correspondent, who is reporting from the conference.
The IISS yesterday reported that the U.K. isn’t reaching NATO’s defense spending goal of 2 percent. Could you clarify this?
That is false, and they haven’t got the full picture. We submit our return to NATO, the official figure is a NATO figure, and it’s 2.16 (percent). We’re comfortably above the 2 percent target.
And you are going to keep it that way?
Oh yes, we’ve committed to staying above 2 percent.
The numbers reported by the Munich Security Conference show that between 2011 and 2020 the growth of the British defense budget is declining. Are you going to turn that around as well? What’s the plan for the future?
Our defense budget is increasing each year. It’s 35 billion (pounds) sterling this year, 36 billion next year, 37 billion in the year beginning 1st April 2019, and it is 38 billion in 2020.
Is it still above 2 percent in relation to the economic power of Britain?
It’s above 2 percent every year of this parliament.
Defense spending will be a rather big topic when NATO defense ministers meet in Brussels this week. I believe only four or five NATO countries are meeting the 2 percent goal at this time. Are you satisfied with the increase in spending from countries like Germany, or do you expect more?
I welcome the planned increase in the German budget, but many members of NATO must do more. Nineteen of the 28 countries do not reach 1.5 percent. Five do not even spend 1 percent.
And do you think the 2 percent goal is achievable for them all in, let’s say, the next five years, or is that expecting too much?
Well we agreed on that figure at the Wales Summit in 2014. Of course some countries are starting from a lower position, but the 19 who are not yet spending 1.5 percent are not the poorest 19.
That’s certainly true. Germany says it is increasing its budget, but they would like to include other expenditures in this calculation. Costs for peace keeping, for example, and immigration. Do you think this is a fair point?
Well it’s for NATO to decide. It’s for NATO to rule on the definition of what is legitimate defense spending.
Do you have an opinion on it?
We accept NATO’s ruling. It’s for NATO to rule on what is NATO defense expenditure.
To move onto the transatlantic relationship, I wanted to ask you about the U.S. situation. Security advisor Michael Flynn has resigned. In light of this, how is your working relationship with the U.S. administration?
It’s been very good. The prime minister was the first from Europe to meet President Trump. I was the first to speak with Secretary James Mattis. We have a great economic relationship with the U.S. and our relationship with regards to defense and security is also strong. That will only grow under President Trump. President Trump has a British mother!
“We have a great economic relationship with the U.S. and our relationship with regards to defense and security is also strong. That will only grow under President Trump.”
Yes, and German roots as well. Trump was quoted saying NATO might be obsolete in the future. What’s your impression with regards to NATO and the new US administration?
Secretary Mattis stated in his confirmation hearings that if NATO did not exist, we’d have to create something similar. After his meeting with Mrs. May, I heard the president confirm that he was 100 percent commited to NATO. We also agree with him, however, that NATO needs to modernize. It needs to be more agile, less bureaucratic and it needs to respond faster to new threats like cyber terrorism.
And should NATO become more involved in the fight against terrorism? Do you think NATO is equipped for that, and is it a good idea?
The NATO Iraq mission has just begun. Germany is making a huge contribution to training Kurdish and Iraqi forces. We all have an interest in suppressing the terrorism that’s been a direct threat to western Europe, and NATO has assets and capabilities that would be illogical to withhold from this fight.
Do you think NATO is able to secure humanitarian safe zones at the moment?
There have been many proposals for no-fly zones, or no-drive zones. The key for any safe zone is the capability to enforce it. In Syria, the difficulty lies in controlling the air space.
So at the moment, the conditions are not sufficient to create a safe zone overhead?
The worst thing would be to offer people words, the phrase “safe zone,” without making it safe in reality. So yes, it needs to be able to be enforced.
Europeans are rethinking their defense security policy, not only because of the U.S. situation, but also because of Brexit. There’s talk about whether Europe should build up its nuclear power. Do you feel there is a point, with Britain leaving the E.U., in doing more this side of France with regards to increasing nuclear weaponry power?
I would say no. France and Britain are part of the nuclear alliance in NATO, and the other members of NATO enjoy that protection. It is often forgotten that NATO is a nuclear alliance.
There’s no need to add to this due to doubts in regards to the U.S. security commitment to Europe? The nuclear capabilities within NATO are enough for the future?
There’s no reason to doubt America’s commitment to western Europe and NATO. We are modernizing our independent deterrent and it’s important that our deterrent and the French deterrent remain independent. That keeps our enemies guessing.
Do you think a European army could work within the E.U. alongside NATO? Or is this difficult to implement?
There was no agreement about a European army when E.U. defense ministers met in Bratislava in the autumn. Britain was not the only country to object to a European army or new headquarters. In fact, we all agreed at the Warsaw summit to work to increase cooperation between NATO and the E.U., and to avoid duplication.
More cooperation is also needed in weapon systems procurement. Experts estimate 30 percent of defense spending could be saved. Why is it so hard to get an agreement on that?
Well nations have their own priorities, but we have a good record on procurement. We have the Typhoon aircraft as a European project, the A400m, another European project; we do cooperate where it can save costs and where it’s in our interest. We will remain interested in pursuing cooperation with our European allies after we leave the union.
“Russia is an important power and has influence in Iran, Syria and elsewhere. So you have to talk to Russia; you have to engage. But equally, we have to accept that Russia is not now a partner but has become a strategic competitor to the West. ”
People are wondering whether Britain will be more or less active on the world stage after Brexit. A poll showed that only 55 percent of British people are in favor of a more active role. That figure is a lot higher in countries like Spain, France and Germany. Will Britain be more or less active?
Those other countries are currently not as active as Britain. We are members of the Security Council, the G7, the commonwealth, the Five Eyes (the intelligence alliance between Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain and the United States). We have the fifth-biggest defense budget in the world. We are more active now in U.N. peacekeeping in Africa, and we are developing strong bilateral relationships with countries as far apart as Japan and Australia, as well as with France and Germany in Europe. So we are already a global player, and we will do more after Brexit.
Turning to Russia, you called President Putin a “realist.” What do you mean by that?
He understands power, and he is testing the alliance and the West to see where its weaknesses are, but he is also realistic about how far Russia can go. It is arguable that without the Ukraine conflict sanctions, he might have gone further.
So there’s reason to keep the sanctions as they are at the moment?
Oh, we all agreed in Europe, we all agreed that we would not lift, we would keep sanctions until (the) Minsk (peace agreement) is implemented. We owe that to Ukraine.
And the Prime Minister (Theresa May) described her relationship to Russia as “engaged and beware.” What does that mean?
“Engaged but beware,” I think. That means you have to talk to Russia of course. Russia is an important power and has influence in Iran, Syria and elsewhere. So you have to talk to Russia; you have to engage. But equally, we have to accept that Russia is not now a partner but has become a strategic competitor to the West. And in the last couple of years, we’ve seen a step change in Russian behavior and aggression.
How do you feel about Russia actually meddling in elections as we have seen in the U.S. but also now we have news coming out of France and we have the same thing here in Germany. Is this a real threat?
Yes, there are too many allegations now of Russian interference in elections in Europeans democracies for this not to be credible. So that is a real threat and we have to counter it. The first thing we have to do is be honest about it and call it and Russia out. When we believe Russia to be responsible, we must say so.
How could Britain, not just the government, but companies as well, prepare for this cyber risk we’re now facing?
This morning I was with the Queen and the Chancellor (of the Exchequer Philip Hammond) when she opened our national cyber security center, which brings together all the agencies involved in cyber protection. We are spending 1.9 billion sterling in this parliamentary period on cyber protection and the center will strengthen our work in protecting the institutions of government, advising businesses and helping people to use the internet safely and securely.
What is the biggest security risk at the moment? Is it Putin, Trump, or is it something else?
Trump is not a security risk. The risks we set out in our strategic defense review just over a year ago were the increasing aggression of countries like Russia, the threat of terrorism, principally from Daesh (ISIS) but also from other extremist groups, and the new threat of cyber (crime and terrorism). These are the main threats that we face at the moment.
The interview was conducted by Torsten Riecke, Handelsblatt’s international correspondent. To reach the author: email@example.com