March 7, 2009 / 3:47 PM / 10 years ago

Europeans seen backing Rasmussen for next NATO head

BERLIN (Reuters) - Britain, France and Germany will back Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen to succeed Jaap de Hoop Scheffer as secretary-general of NATO, a German newspaper reported on Saturday.

Denmark's Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen holds a news conference after an emergency European Union leaders summit in Brussels March 1, 2009. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Scheffer is due to step down in July, and the Sueddeutsche Zeitung daily said Prime Minister Gordon Brown, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had agreed Rasmussen should replace him.

A German government spokesman said NATO was still discussing the matter and that no decision had been made yet.

Others tipped as potential successors include Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, Norway’s Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Stoere and former British Defence Secretary Des Browne.

In recent months speculation has built up in Danish media that Rasmussen, who still has 2-1/2 years of his current term in office to run, could be in line for the NATO job.

Rasmussen has consistently rejected the suggestion he could step down this year when asked about the reports. His office was not immediately available for comment on Saturday.

If the 56-year-old were selected to head NATO, his centre-right Liberal Party would have to choose a successor as prime minister. Finance Minister Lars Rasmussen — who is no relation — has already been mooted as a likely successor.

Scheffer, a former Dutch foreign minister, took up the post at the start of 2004, and his four-year term was extended so he could oversee NATO’s 60th anniversary celebrations this year.

NATO’s most powerful member, the United States, is expected to make its choice for his successor in the week before a NATO summit on April 3-4, the newspaper said.

In office since 2001, Rasmussen backed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. His government was drawn into an international controversy surrounding the publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammad by a Danish newspaper in 2005.

Denmark currently has some 700 combat troops in Afghanistan.

Reporting by Dave Graham, Kim McLaughlin and Andreas Moeser

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