Mark Rutte lined up to be Nato secretary general after Orbán deal

<span>Mark Rutte, 57, has gained the support of the other Nato members to take over leadership of the alliance.</span><span>Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images</span>
Mark Rutte, 57, has gained the support of the other Nato members to take over leadership of the alliance.Photograph: Anadolu/Getty Images

Mark Rutte, the outgoing Dutch prime minister, is expected to become the next head of Nato after winning over Hungary’s prime minister with a promise not to deploy Budapest’s forces or spend its money supporting Ukraine.

Viktor Orbán, the leader in Nato seen as closest to Russia, announced he had dropped his objections after discussions with Rutte, prompting the current secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, to declare that the selection process would end “very soon”.

On Tuesday afternoon, Orbán wrote on X that “Hungary is ready to support PM Rutte’s bid for Nato secretary general” and published a letter of reassurance he had received from the Dutch politician earlier that day.

Related: Nato should not appoint Mark Rutte without broader discussion, says Latvia

In it, Rutte wrote to Orbán: “I am aware of the outcome of talks between Jens Stoltenberg [the current secretary-general] and you regarding Nato’s support for Ukraine. It is my understanding that you stressed that no Hungarian personnel would take part in these activities and no Hungarian funds will be used to support them.”

The Dutch leader, 57, added that he would respect the commitment given to Hungary, writing “in a possible future capacity as Nato secretary general, I will fully support this outcome of the talks” and added: “I look forward to our future engagement – whatever that might be.”

Slovakia, another Nato member whose government is seen as sympathetic to Russia, also said on Tuesday it was willing to support Rutte. Peter Pellegrini, the country’s president, said in a briefing: “The Slovak republic can imagine supporting the Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte as the head of the alliance.”

Nato secretary generals are chosen by consensus from the 32 members of the alliance, and with Hungary and Slovakia declaring for Rutte, that only leaves Romania as the final holdout. The country’s president, Klaus Iohannis, was a rival candidate, but has picked up no support and is expected by alliance members to withdraw shortly.

Stoltenberg, who normally never comments on the succession process, said that the effort to replace him had all but concluded at a press conference after a summit meeting with the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, in Washington DC.

“With the announcement by prime minister Orbán today, I think it is obvious we are very close to a conclusion in the alliance for allies to select a next secretary general. Mark Rutte is a very strong candidate. He has a lot of experience as prime minister. He is a close friend and colleague.

“I strongly believe that very soon the alliance will have decided on my successor and this will be good for all of us, for Nato and also for me,” said Blinken.

Stoltenberg, a former Norwegian prime minister, became Nato’s secretary general in 2014 and his term of office had been extended repeatedly after the alliance failed to find a successor. But this year, after Stoltenberg stressed he could stay on no longer, Rutte came forward and swiftly won the support of the US, UK, Germany and France.

Rutte, a centre-right politician, has been the prime minister of the Netherlands for 14 years, but said he would step down a year ago, and is expected to be replaced shortly after extended coalition negotiations to form a new Dutch government. Known as “Teflon Mark” for his powers of survival, Rutte also continued to teach social studies one day a week in schools in The Hague during the time he was prime minister.

Next month, Nato will hold its annual summit in Washington DC next month, at a time when Ukraine is looking for further assistance in the face of renewed attacks from Russia. Rutte is expected to take over as the head of the alliance after the summit, which will discuss how to ensure long-term military support for Ukraine.

As well as finding ways to help Ukraine, without the country becoming a fully fledged member, Rutte may have to deal with Donald Trump, the Republican challenger to Joe Biden for the US presidency. Trump has repeatedly voiced scepticism about the value of the alliance and even mooted trying to quit amid complaints about levels of defence spending by other members.

Earlier this week, Stoltenberg said that “more than 20 allies will spend at least 2% of GDP on defence,” a Nato target originally set in 2014, compared with 11 countries 12 months ago. Trump threatened earlier this year he would not defend any Nato member that was “delinquent” and did not spend up to this level.