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It’s the rumor inflating the Brussels bubble: The EU’s top executive, Ursula von der Leyen, could be crossing town to run NATO.
The rationale makes sense. She has a good working relationship with Washington. She is a former defense minister. And as European Commission president, she has experience working with most NATO heads of government. Plus, if chosen, she would become the alliance’s first-ever female leader.
The conversation has crested in recent weeks, as people eye current NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg’s pending exit at the end of September.
Yet according to those inside NATO and at the Commission, the murmurings are more wish-casting than hints of a pending job switch. There is no evidence von der Leyen is interested in the role, and those in Brussels don’t expect her to quit before her first presidential term ends in 2024.
The chatter is similar to the rumblings around Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, a long-serving leader who checks every box but insists he doesn’t want the job.
The speculation illustrates how much Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed NATO — and who can lead it. The war has put a new spotlight on the alliance, making the job more politically sensitive and high-profile than in the past. And allies are suddenly much more cautious about who they want on the podium speaking for them.
In short, the chatter seems to be people manifesting their ideal candidates and testing ideas rather than engaging in a real negotiation.
“The more names, the clearer there is no candidate,” said one senior European diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal alliance dynamics.
A second senior European diplomat agreed: “There is a lot of backroom gossip,” this person said, “but no clear field at this stage.”
The (very) short list
The next NATO chief, officials say, needs to be a European who can work closely with whoever is in the White House.
But that’s not all. The next NATO chief needs to be someone who backs Ukraine but is not so hawkish that it spooks countries worried about provoking Russia. And the person has to have stature — likely a former head of state or government — who can get unanimous support from 31 capitals and, most importantly, the U.S.
That’s not a long list.
Von der Leyen is on it, but there are several obstacles to her candidacy.
The first is simply timing. If Stoltenberg leaves office in the fall as scheduled, his replacement would come into the office a year before von der Leyen’s term at the Commission ends in late 2024. She may even seek another five-year term.
“I don’t think she will move anywhere before the end of her mandate,” said one senior Commission official, who also spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.
Speculation is rife that the current NATO chief may be asked to stay on, at least for a little while longer, to allow for a candidate such as von der Leyen to come in at a later stage.
“If Stoltenberg is prolonged until next summer, Ursula von der Leyen’s candidature would look logical,” said a third senior European diplomat.
But in an interview with POLITICO last week, Stoltenberg appeared keen to go home. The NATO chief has been in the job for over eight years, the second-longest tenure in the alliance’s seven-decade history.
Asked about gossip that he may stay on, the secretary-general shot back sarcastically: “First of all, there are many more questions in the world that are extremely more important than that.”
“My plan is to go back to Norway,” he added, “I have been here for now a long time.”
The alliance is divided on the matter. Some countries — particularly those outside the EU — would prefer a quick decision to avoid running into the EU’s own 2024 elections. The fear, a fourth European diplomat said, is that NATO becomes a “consolation prize in the broader European politics” as leaders haggle over who will run the EU’s main institutions.
Another challenge for von der Leyen would be Germany’s track record on defense spending — and her own record as Germany’s defense minister.
A decade ago, NATO countries pledged to move toward spending 2 percent of their economic output on defense by 2024. But Germany, despite being Europe’s largest economy, has consistently missed the mark, even after announcing a €100 billion fund last year to modernize its military.
Additionally, some observers say von der Leyen bears some responsibility for the relatively poor state of Germany’s defenses.
From the German government’s perspective, keeping von der Leyen at the helm of the Commission might also be a bigger priority than NATO — even if she comes from the current center-right opposition. The EU executive is arguably more powerful than the NATO chief within Europe, pushing policies that affect nearly every corner of life.
Predictably, the Commission is officially dismissive of any speculation.
“The president is not a candidate for the job” of NATO secretary-general, a Commission spokesperson told POLITICO on Monday. “And she has no comment on the speculation.”
Who else can do it?
As with von der Leyen, it is unclear if some other names floated are actually available.
Dutch Prime Minister Rutte has dismissed speculation about a NATO role, telling reporters in January that he wanted to “leave politics altogether and do something completely different.”
A spokesperson for the prime minister reiterated this week that the his view has not changed.
Insiders, however, say the Dutch leader shouldn’t be counted out. In office since 2010, Rutte has significant experience working with leaders across the alliance and promotes a tight transatlantic bond.
The Netherlands is also relatively muscular on defense — it has been one of Europe’s largest donors to Ukraine — but not quite as hawkish as countries on the eastern flank.
“Rutte’s name keeps popping up,” said the second senior European diplomat, “but no movement on this beyond gossip.”
Others occasionally mentioned as possible candidates are Estonian Prime Minister Kaja Kallas and Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, and to a lesser extent British Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, Canadian Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis and Slovak President Zuzana Čaputová.
But despite the gossip, officials acknowledge many of these names are not politically feasible at this stage.
Kallas, for instance, is perceived as too hawkish. And conversely, Canada and some southern European countries are viewed within the alliance as laggards on defense investment. Then there’s the fact that some capitals would oppose a non-EU candidate, complicating a Wallace candidacy.
As a result, a senior figure from a northern or western EU country appears the most likely profile for a successful candidate. Yet for now, who that person would be remains murky. Officials do have a deadline, though: the annual NATO summit in July.
“Either a new secretary general will be announced,” said a fifth senior European diplomat, “or the mandate of Jens Stoltenberg will be prolonged.”