LONDON (Reuters) - Some European NATO members are not pulling their weight in the Libyan air campaign, Britain’s defence minister said on Wednesday in one of his strongest attacks yet on the alliance.
Defence Secretary Liam Fox said Britain’s military was being stretched by the near four-month-old United Nations mandated Libya campaign and that he would seek to shift more of the strain to others in the 28-member NATO alliance.
“The United States is willing to spend on defence, Britain is willing to spend on defence and deploy. Far too (many) of our European partners inside NATO are still trying to get a free ride, and they should regard Libya as a wake up call,” Fox said, labelling some NATO members’ contributions “pathetic.”
“If they want the insurance policy, they should perhaps think about paying the premiums,” Fox added, speaking at the Royal United Services Institute defence thinktank in London.
Fox’s comments echo those of former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates, who in a valedictory speech in June said European NATO members risked “collective military irrelevance” if they did not deepen their commitment and boost spending.
NATO air strikes to protect Libyan civilians from Muammar Gaddafi’s forces have strained the budgets of participating countries, many of which are trying to tackle budget deficits by reining in defence spending.
The strain had raised media speculation over Britain’s commitment to the campaign. Fox reiterated that the country would stay the course, but would seek to shift more of the heavy lifting to other countries.
“Sustaining the tempo does increase the pressure on personnel and equipment ... No one wants the operations in Libya to take a day longer than necessary. But the bottom line is this; We can and will sustain operations in Libya for as long as it takes,” he said.
“As members of the alliance participating adjust to the pressures being placed on their armed forces, we will look to the breadth of capability that the alliance possesses as a whole to sustain the tempo of operations,” he added.
Gaddafi is still in power despite months of air strikes and fighting with rebel forces, putting greater focus on a political solution to the conflict, which started after a February uprising against Gaddafi’s four-decades of autocratic rule.
On Tuesday, France said Gaddafi’s emissaries had been in contact with NATO members to say he is ready to leave power, the latest sign of a possible negotiated end to the crisis.
Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; editing by Elizabeth Piper