US backs Portillo to take over Nato

Click to follow
OFFICIALS IN the US administration are backing Michael Portillo, the Thatcherite former defence secretary, to take over the top job at Nato, because he has defence experience and Atlanticist leanings. The front-runner for the job, Rudolf Scharping, has already been ruled out.

Mr Scharping, the German defence minister, had been expected to take over from Javier Solana, the incumbent appointed yesterday as Europe's new foreign policy supremo at a summit in Cologne. But Gerhard Schroder, the German Chancellor, said Mr Scharping was needed in government, and he also ruled out his predecessor, Volker Ruhe.

Mr Portillo's installation would be seen in Washington as an ideal counter- balance to the expanding role Europe is carving out in defence and security matters. As a Tory cabinet minister, Mr Portillo was a hard-line Eurosceptic and would bolster US influence in Nato.

The nomination of Mr Portillo might also be convenient for Mr Blair, because it would remove from domestic politics a potential leader of the Tory party, and demonstrate an "inclusive" willingness to award top jobs to talented political opponents. But Downing Street last night dismissed as "nonsense" the suggestion that Mr Portillo is a candidate for the post of secretary-general.

The US, by far the biggest military power in Nato, will have an important say in the appointment of its secretary- general, but the decision will require the agreement of the alliance's 19 member states.

The prospects of Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, getting an international job also improved yesterday. Three vacancies exist in the international community's plans for Balkan reconstruction. Mr Ashdown, who retires this month, has a military background and a lengthy record of involvement in the Balkans.

The EU representative in Bosnia, Carlos Westerndorp, may leave his post this month if, as expected, he is elected to the European Parliament.

Another "high representative" will be given the job of co-ordinating the reconstruction of Kosovo and agencies operating there. This would probably not be an EU appointment, although that would not exclude a British candidate.

Finally, the EU envisages a third individual co-ordinating its push to reconstruct the Balkan region, including implementation of a "stability pact" to bring the countries bordering Kosovo closer to EU and Nato membership.

Other candidates for the three jobs could include Dick Spring, the Irish Foreign Minister, Carl Bildt, a former Bosnia envoy, Hans Van Den Broek, the Dutch ex-European commissioner, and Klaus Naumann, former chairman of Nato's military committee.