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US concerns over EU defence pact cloud NATO talks

US Foreign Secretary Rex Tillerson speaks during a joint press conference with Jordanian foreign minister in Amman on February 14, 2018. Tillerson is on a regional tour of the Middle East which has already taken him to Egypt and Kuwait, where he attended the previous day a ministerial meeting of the US-led military coalition that has been fighting Islamic State group jihadists in Iraq and Syria. / AFP PHOTO / Khalil MAZRAAWI

NATO defence ministers gathered for talks Wednesday amid US concerns over the EU’s landmark defence cooperation pact and increasingly strained relations between Washington and Turkey.

Washington and Ankara, two of the transatlantic alliance’s most important members, are at loggerheads over Turkey’s military offensive in northern Syria, which US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday warned was detracting from the fight against the Islamic State group.

The two-day meeting at NATO headquarters in Brussels is expected to approve changes to NATO’s command structure aimed at making the alliance fit for the challenges of warfare in the 21st century, particularly cyber tactics and hybrid warfare, as fears grow about Russian assertiveness.

But a working dinner with EU diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini later Wednesday has taken on greater significance after senior US officials voiced fears about the bloc’s defence pact.

Despite concerns from the alliance’s biggest power, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the right balance could be struck.

“Done in the right way, these efforts can make a contribution to fairer burden-sharing between Europe and North America,” Stoltenberg told reporters as he arrived for talks with NATO defence ministers on Wednesday.

US President Donald Trump has repeatedly urged allies to increase their share of spending to ease Washington’s burden.

On Tuesday Stoltenberg said efforts to boost EU defence spending were welcome, but only if they were coordinated with NATO plans, warning there was “no way” the EU could replace the transatlantic alliance in guaranteeing European security.

“It will be absolutely without any meaning if NATO and the EU start to compete,” the former Norwegian premier told reporters.

“European allies are absolutely aware that the defence, the protection of Europe is dependent on NATO.”

The EU’s so-called permanent structured cooperation on defence agreement, known as PESCO, has projects in view already to develop new military equipment and improve cooperation and decision-making.

But on Sunday a senior official working with US Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said Washington had concerns some of the proposed initiatives risked “pulling resources or capabilities away from NATO”.

Turkey row
And on Tuesday US ambassador to NATO Kay Bailey Hutchison ramped up the pressure, warning the EU there could be serious consequences if it shuts US defence companies out of cooperation projects.

“Certainly we do not want this to be a protectionist vehicle for the EU and we’re going to watch carefully, because if that becomes the case then it could splinter the strong security alliance that we have,” she told reporters.

The US concerns have surprised some European diplomats, with one insisting that EU defence cooperation poses no threat to NATO, adding that “a little explanatory work” is required to clarify matters with the Americans.

Wednesday’s dinner now represents an important chance for Mogherini to reassure the United States, which is NATO’s biggest contributor.

Potentially more serious is the festering row between the United States and Turkey over Ankara’s “Operation Olive Branch” launched last month against the Syrian Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG).

While Turkey views the YPG as a “terrorist” group, the United States has been working closely with the militia against Islamic State in Syria and giving it weapons, infuriating Ankara.

US ambassador Hutchison said Turkey remained an important ally and the two sides were trying to resolve the dispute.

Mattis is to meet his Turkish counterpart on the sidelines of the meeting on Wednesday.

A diplomatic source said that while the row was “a topic of concern for NATO”, it was not a matter for the alliance to resolve.

“The issue will be solved bilaterally between the US and Turkey,” the source said.

The talks also aim to prepare for a NATO summit in July and involve what Stoltenberg called “regular consultations to keep NATO nuclear forces safe, secure and effective.”

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EUNATORex Tillerson
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