Klaus Iohannis’s candidacy for NATO Secretary General actually aims to reach a function in the future European Commission

Romanian journalists and analysts point out that his candidacy to lead the Alliance has not been discussed with any of the Western partners and has even annoyed them

Vladimir Mitev, Mediapool, 3 iunie 2024

This article was published by Mediapool on 3 June 2024 and is republished with minor modifications. 

On 12 March 2024, Romanian President Klaus Iohannis officially announced his candidacy for the post of NATO Secretary General with a visionary article in Politico Europe. In it, Iohannis said all the right things that a leader of the Alliance should say – support for increasing military mobility, for Ukraine’s victory in the war with Russia, for increasing interoperability between the militaries of the member states, for the development of new technologies, for solidarity within NATO, for the alliance of values, etc. Iohannis dared to run at a time when it was known that at least 20 of the Alliance’s 31 members supported the Dutchman Mark Rutte for Secretary General. He did so shortly after the European People’s Party held its forum in Bucharest on 6 and 7 March 2024. This may have given people in our region the impression that the Romanian President is on the rise and that his country is once again showing its ambitions as a Euro-Atlantic pillar in the region. 

Three months later and ahead of the NATO summit in Washington (9-11 July 2024), Iohannis’s candidacy seems to be where it was at the very beginning. Only Hungary has so far expressed support for him. Turkey, which was rumoured to be in a position to support him, has backed Mark Rutte. Poland does not support Iohannis, but neither does it endorse Rutte. Iohannis is not seen campaigning among European capitals for his candidacy. His visit to Washington on 7 May 2024 was seen in the Romanian press as the final nail in the coffin of his candidacy – because US President Joe Biden did not publicly address the issue. The US, the UK and the vast majority of NATO countries are known to support Rutte. Cristian Pantazi and Dan Tapalaga of g4 media write that Iohannis’s candidacy was not discussed with any of the Western partners before its announcement and when it was announced caused “irritation” among them because it delayed the procedure of selecting the new secretary general.

G4 media attributes this doomed candidacy to the big ego of Iohannis, who covets international office and has an “imperialist” attitude in his homeland. Unofficially, however, there is also a hypothesis circulating in Romania that Iohannis never had any real intentions to become NATO secretary general, but just wants his name to be discussed in Western capitals, with the ultimate goal of getting a function in the future European Commission – for example, that of defence commissioner. One argument in support of Iohannis is that the eastern part of the EU and NATO is poorly represented in these western organisations.

“I think there is really quite a big gap at the moment in terms of the level of representation between the East and the West in international institutions. Some things have been achieved over time – for example, the fact that Ms Kristalina Georgieva is managing director of the IMF and Mircea Geoană is deputy director general of NATO. But it is still not enough. So far, I have not seen a consistent interest or willingness on the part of our Western allies and partners to ensure a balance between East and West in filling these positions. There needs to be a balance and it needs to be based on the reality that we have at the moment, which is that most of the threats and risks are in the East. I cannot talk about the political aspect of these decisions. I can only express my hope, as a citizen of a NATO and EU country, that this issue will eventually be resolved,” a former Romanian senior defence and security official told Mediapool, requesting anonymity.

During his visit to Washington on 7 May 2024, Klaus Iohannis received the “Distinguished International Leader” award from the Atlantic Council in “recognition of his career and his role as a transatlantic and European leader”. But Iohannis also received a hot potato – a US request that Romania hand over to Ukraine one of the four Patriot missile systems it purchased in 2017. Currently, one of these systems is already operational in Romania, while the other three are at various levels of activation. 

During his visit to the US, Iohannis said Romania could consider providing Ukraine with one of its Patriot missile systems, for which Bucharest paid nearly $4 billion. His openness to this conversation was announced after Joe Biden had raised the subject, and Germany had earlier urged European countries to provide anti-aircraft systems to Ukraine and had expressed its willingness to give Kiev a Patriot complex. Later in May 2024, Romanian Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu explained that Defense Minister Angel Tîlvar had serious reservations about providing Ukraine with a Patriot system. Ciolacu later added that the difficulties the idea faced did not mean it was impossible to implement. In turn, Iohannis noted that he did not want to discuss the issue of the possible provision of the Patriot system to Ukraine “in the public space” and would prefer that it be resolved with military experts and Romania’s Supreme Council for National Defense, an advisory body to the head of state. Iohannis also stressed that the deployment of Patriot is a complex process, involving a number of logistical and legal issues, and clarified, “not to mention that I do not agree in any case that Romania should remain without missile and air defence.” “So if Romania makes a concession, it has to get something in return. Otherwise, nothing will be done,” the Romanian president clarified, pointing out that “there is no time horizon” for this decision.

The evasiveness of the Romanian government and Romanian politicians is probably related to their desire, on the one hand, to look like loyal Western allies and, on the other, not to give the impression that they prioritise the defence of Ukraine over that of Romania. Romanian sovereignists have held Iohannis at gunpoint for a long time and accused him of a number of sins, including being servile towards Western partners and not defending Romanian national interests with firmness in relation to Ukraine. Recently, the deputy chairman of Romania’s leading sovereigntist party, the AUR, Claudiu Tarziiu, made territorial claims against Ukraine, where a Romanian-speaking population lives in northern Bukovina.

Another problem for the Romanian rulers is that in September 2024 presidential elections will be held in Romania. Iohannis, who is running for NATO Secretary-General, must demonstrate his solidarity with the West and its allies (Ukraine) at a time when his approval rating in Romanian society is extremely low. There is an unspoken struggle between the favourites to be the next president, including Prime Minister Marcel Ciolacu, who is representing the Iohannis bloc in Romanian politics, but also NATO Deputy Secretary-General Mircea Geoană, over who will win over the sovereigntist voters. So both the provision of a Patriot missile complex to Ukraine and the rejection of this proposal could hinder Iohannis’ successors in the presidential and parliamentary elections at the end of 2024. 

According to Marius Ghincea, a Romanian political scientist with a PhD from the European University Institute in Florence, Iohannis has no chance of becoming NATO secretary general. Ghincea also thinks that if Iohannis has any chances for a European function, it could be the post of High Representative for Foreign Affairs (which the Romanian political scientist mentions is traditionally held by more impersonal figures) or Commissioner for Enlargement and Neighbourhood, “to support the Republic of Moldova, Ukraine and the Western Balkans”. 

In the last 10 years Klaus Iohannis has been a symbol of Romania’s foreign policy orientation based on unity between the US and Western Europe. Whether such a bet will continue to be valid in the future will become clear after the US elections, but also after the European elections show the new balance of power in the European Parliament and the European Commission.

Probably soon no one will talk about or remember that Iohannis was a candidate for NATO secretary-general. An investigation in the Romanian media Recorder this spring showed that he seems to be preparing to live in a kind of ‘palace’ in the centre of Bucharest once he ceases to be Romania’s president. 

Iohannis seems to believe in his political future. It remains to be seen whether he will and what it will be.

Photo: Klaus Iohannis (source: European People’s Party)

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