Way clear for Rutte: Iohannis withdraws candidacy as NATO Secretary General

After several months of uncertainty, the way is clear for the outgoing Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte to become the new NATO Secretary General. Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis withdrew his candidacy on Thursday, as Romania’s Supreme Council for National Defense announced in Bucharest. All 32 NATO states are now behind the plan for Rutte to succeed long-standing Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in October.

The official appointment of the 57-year-old Dutchman by NATO countries is expected shortly. According to diplomats and NATO representatives, an ambassadorial meeting of the alliance member states will probably take place next week for this purpose.

Only on Tuesday did Hungary and Slovakia give up their opposition to Rutte. They justified this by making various promises. In April, Rutte was also able to convince Turkey, which had initially been skeptical.

Time was running out for a decision: NATO wants to present Rutte as the new Secretary General at its anniversary summit in Washington at the beginning of July. He will be the fourth Dutchman to hold this position since the transatlantic alliance was founded over 75 years ago.

The USA, Germany, Great Britain and France had already spoken out in favour of Rutte in February. Chancellor Olaf Scholz (SPD) said that the Dutchman was an “outstanding candidate” with his “immense experience, his great security policy expertise and his pronounced diplomatic skills”.

A few weeks later, however, Iohannis surprisingly announced his candidacy. The 65-year-old Romanian justified this by saying that Eastern Europeans were underrepresented in NATO. It was initially unclear whether Iohannis received any assurances from Rutte or the partner countries for his concessions.

Rutte takes over the top post in the alliance at a difficult time in the Russian war of aggression against Ukraine. NATO is also preparing for a possible re-election of former US President Donald Trump and a weaker US role in the transatlantic alliance.

The NATO countries hope that Rutte, who has international experience, will be able to overcome these problems with diplomatic skill. Rutte has been head of government of the Netherlands for almost 14 years. He knows Trump from his first term in office, when the Republican declared NATO “obsolete” and urged the Europeans to increase defense spending.

Rutte is likely to continue Stoltenberg’s uncompromising stance towards Russia. The Dutchman recently said: “Ukraine must win this fight – for its security and ours.”

In return, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is currently demanding seven Patriot systems from the allies. So far, however, NATO has had difficulty getting these together.

Now Romania has announced another Patriot system for Ukraine, but in return demanded “a similar system” from its NATO partners to protect its airspace. Germany had already promised Kiev one – in addition to two Patriots already delivered. The Netherlands is working with other countries to secure a commitment for a third Patriot battery. The USA is still considering a delivery. Italy has promised a comparable SAMP/T system.

NATO has criticized France in particular for claiming its air defense for the Summer Olympics in July and August. Partner countries consider this to be a bogus argument. Meanwhile, Ukraine is growing impatient. In the past few days alone, it has reported Russian air strikes in the regions of Zaporizhia, Donetsk, Kherson, Kharkiv and Kiev.