Brussels, July 9 (BNA): For Belgians, two events matter this week: the World Cup semi-final against France on Tuesday and the NATO summit in their capital Brussels on Wednesday and Thursday.
On Tuesday evening, Belgians are entertaining the hope that their national team will qualify for the first time in its history to the final of the FIFA World Cup.
Then, the next morning the summit of the 29 members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) is most likely to influence the future of the alliance that has proven its tremendous success since its inception in 1949, but is now facing sceptical questions fuelled by the aggressive position on Europe’s military spending taken by US President Donald Trump.
While NATO’s top brass and the leaders of the member states of the strongest defence alliance in the history of the world are preparing for their summit, Belgians are taking time off to live the bold dream of beating the French team and subsequently winning the much-coveted trophy on Sunday.
At the Grand Place, the vibrating heart of the capital, young people and children are donning the red jersey of the national team, the latest source of immense pride in the country.
Families, tourists and young people are thronging the central square surrounded by opulent guildhalls, the city's Town Hall and the King's House. The open air restaurants in the area are filled with people taking advantage of the splendid weather.
However, not far from the landmark square, NATO officials and officers are pondering ways to “further strengthen the alliance, increase the readiness of Allied forces, improve NATO’s command structure and strengthen NATO-EU cooperation.”
The acid test will be how President Trump who has been highly critical that Europeans are deadbeats in their military spending will look at the drive by fellow NATO members to honour the pledge they made in 2014 to spend two per cent from their economic output on defence by 2024.
Some countries have already made it, while others have been making tremendous progress towards achieving that goal. Yet, President Trump is pushing for more members to be better committed and sooner.
“Change is coming,” he posted last week on his Twitter account. The quality and quantity of change are most likely to dominate the debate over the two days of the summit.
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg on Sunday admitted there was an issue, but insisted solutions were on the way.
“President Trump has been outspoken on this issue [defence spending], and I thanked him for his leadership when we met at the White House in May. The upswing in NATO defence spending over the past year and a half demonstrates that his efforts are making a difference. NATO’s credibility as an alliance -in each other’s eyes, and in those of our potential adversaries - relies on sharing the defence burden fairly.”
Yet, Stoltenberg remained optimistic that the alliance that has withstood the Cold War, nuclear threats and proxy wars would overcome the new challenges.
“There are differences among NATO countries on serious issues such as trade, climate change and the Iran nuclear deal. But we have always managed to overcome our differences before. Two world wars and a Cold War have taught a simple yet powerful lesson: United, we are stronger and safer,” he remarked.
Regardless of the statements and tweets issued before the summit, Brussels is ready for the grand gathering amid tight security around the new NATO premises and other major areas.
Inside the new NATO building, the impressive media centre features a filing area for 850 workspaces, a broadcast centre with 45 television and 15 radio editing booths, 26 outdoors stand-up positions with a view to the NATO Flags, NATO star and the new NATO HQ façade, 19 indoor stand up positions and a briefing space for delegation press conferences.
One country hopes that the Brussels summit will pave the way for its membership - the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (FYROM).
Reports say that the final declaration of the NATO summit is expected to state that its accession “hinges on its ratification of the name deal signed with Athens last month.”
Last month, Macedonia and Greece signed a deal under which Macedonia will change its name and Athens will unblock its neighbour's path to membership in NATO and the European Union.
Greece had for years objected to its neighbour being called Macedonia because it has a northern province of the same name.
The deal has to be cleared by the parliaments of both countries in order to allow the process to move forward.