Dutch leader Mark Rutte clears a big hurdle to becoming NATO chief after Hungary lifts objections

BRUSSELS (AP) — Hungary on Tuesday lifted its veto on Mark Rutte becoming the next head of NATO after the outgoing Dutch prime minister gave written guarantees that he would not force the country to take part in the military alliance’s new plans to provide support to Ukraine.

Rutte’s assurances, contained in a letter to Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, remove a major obstacle to him becoming the next NATO secretary-general — the organization’s top civilian official.

It could also allow NATO to put on a major show of unity and demonstrate solidarity with war-ravaged Ukraine when U.S. President Joe Biden and his counterparts meet in Washington on July 9-11. The summit is to mark NATO’s 75th anniversary.

At talks in Budapest last week, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, who is due to step down in October, clinched a deal with Orbán to ensure that Hungary would not block NATO’s plans for Ukraine.

Stoltenberg accepted that Hungary should not be obligated to provide personnel or funds for the collective effort, but Orbán wanted to hear it from Rutte too.

NATO takes all of its decisions by consensus, giving any of the 32 member countries an effective veto, including on whether they should take part in any joint effort or operation.

Taking to social media, Orbán said it was important for Hungary to establish “that this agreement can stand the test of time.” He posted Rutte’s letter, dated June 18, a day after the two men had met in Brussels on the sidelines of a European Union summit.

Rutte wrote that “in a possible future capacity as NATO Secretary General I will fully support this outcome of the talks between Jens Stoltenberg and you.”

It was enough for Orbán. “PM Mark Rutte confirmed that he fully supports this deal and will continue to do so, should be become the next Secretary General of NATO. In light of his pledge, Hungary is ready to support PM Rutte’s bid for NATO Secretary-General,” he posted on X.

Budapest had also complained about unidentified remarks that Rutte had made about the Hungarian government three years ago and demanded an apology.

Rutte wrote that he “took note” that his past remarks “caused dissatisfaction in Hungary. My priority in a possible future capacity as NATO Secretary General will be to maintain unity and treat all Allies with the same level of understanding and respect.”

NATO secretaries-general are responsible for chairing meetings and guiding sometimes delicate consultations among member countries to ensure that an organization that operates on consensus can continue to function.

Rutte is far and away the preferred candidate of the majority of NATO allies, including big members like the United States and Germany. Earlier this year, Turkey voiced opposition to Rutte’s bid but lifted its objections in April.

The last hurdle remains the candidature of Romanian President Klaus Iohannis, who is nearing the end of his second five-year term as head of state, but officials and analysts believe it will not pose a major problem.

Stoltenberg is seen as a steady hand at NATO’s helm for a decade and his mandate has been extended several times. Biden and his NATO counterparts had been due to name a successor when they met in Lithuania in July 2023, but no consensus could be found about a replacement.

“I mean it sincerely, you’ve been great. I just wish you’d extend your term another 10 years,” Biden said as he met the former Norwegian prime minister at the White House on Monday.

Lorne Cook, The Associated Press