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Next EU presidency: nations moving toward NATO spending goal

Associated Press logo Associated Press 2/06/2017 By RAF CASERT, Associated Press
Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas answers questions by The Associated Press during an interview in, Tallinn, Friday, June 2, 2017. The nation which will hold the European Union presidency as of next month says that the "very bad, very negative" decision of President Trump to pull the United States out of the global climate agreement will force the 28-nation bloc to take a stronger lead on the issue. (AP Photo/David Keyton) © The Associated Press Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas answers questions by The Associated Press during an interview in, Tallinn, Friday, June 2, 2017. The nation which will hold the European Union presidency as of next month says that the "very bad, very negative" decision of President Trump to pull the United States out of the global climate agreement will force the 28-nation bloc to take a stronger lead on the issue. (AP Photo/David Keyton)

TALLINN, Estonia — The leader of the next European Union presidency says that several EU nations which were publicly scolded by U.S. President Donald Trump about their defense expenditure will be reaching a key NATO target next year.

Estonian Prime Minister Juri Ratas said in an interview with The Associated Press on Friday that NATO nations spending 2 percent of gross domestic product could almost double from the current five to possibly nine by the end of 2018, including two other Baltic nations, Latvia and Lithuania.

Pressed by a United States taking on most of the spending in the 28-nation alliance, NATO set the 2-percent target for its members to move toward by 2024.

Estonia, Britain, Poland and Greece are already hitting the mark. Some barely spent about half that up to a few years ago.

"The most important is the message that we all are, little bit, but we are going to catch this 2 percentage level," Ratas said.

Trump insisted at a NATO summit last week that 2 percent was a bare minimum and lashed out at those European nations that he believes have been dragging their heels, arguing it was unfair to the United States.

The latest U.S. figures put its defense spending at 3.2 percent of GDP. The latest NATO figures for major EU nations are 0.91 percent for Spain, 1.11 percent for Italy, 1.19 percent for Germany and 1.78 percent for France.

The discrepancy was a hot debating point at the NATO summit dinner last week, Ratas said.

"Some very big states from Europe, they said during this dinner that the next three or four years we will have this level for the defense expenditure," Ratas said. He did not elaborate.

Ratas will take over the rotating six-month EU presidency at the end of the month, and the 28-nation bloc has been stressing that the defense capabilities of EU nations should improve and that cooperation should be streamlined to cut out wasteful spending overlaps.

With Estonia and several other NATO nations bordering an increasingly belligerent Russia, many had been hoping that Trump would again public commit to NATO's "all for one, one for all" Article 5 in case of attack.

His refusal to do so raised questions about U.S. commitment, but Ratas said a public message of support from Trump was not necessary.

"Is U.S. behind NATO or not? He said the United States is very strongly behind NATO," Ratas said. "If the president is saying that 'we are very strongly behind NATO,' it means all the articles including (Article) 5."

Ratas also held out a hand to Turkey, a key NATO ally and a longstanding applicant nation for EU membership.

Those EU talks have been quasi-dormant for many years and relations have deteriorated under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Some EU nations are now openly calling to end the membership talks, but Ratas disagrees.

"We must keep this relationship between (the) European Union and Turkey also during our presidency," he said.

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