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EXPLAINED: Why is everyone talking about Denmark's PM as the next Nato chief?

EXPLAINED: Why is everyone talking about Denmark's PM as the next Nato chief?
Denmark's prime minister Mette Frederiksen makes a speech on May 1st 2023. Photo: Emil Nicolai Helms/Ritzau Scanpix

With Denmark's prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, set to visit the US next week to visit Joe Biden, rumours are flying of her being appointed the next Secretary General of Nato. What's behind the gossip and does it make any sense?

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Why is the post up for grabs? 

Jens Stoltenberg, Nato's Norwegian secretary-general, retires at the end of September after nine years in the post and there's a growing expectation that his replacement will be announced at Nato's coming annual summit in Vilnius in July. That means that the positioning from candidates for the role is well-advanced. 

Why is Mette Frederiksen seen as a candidate? 

Frederiksen is well-regarded, with several diplomats telling the Politico website that she was "a serious candidate" for the role. She is tough-minded and decisive, a good speaker and a heavyweight position. She is also well into her second term as Denmark's leader, meaning she might be ready to move on to the next stage of her career. 

Norway's VG newspaper in April cited two anonymous sources as saying that Frederiksen was among the top candidates for the role.

In her favour, the newspaper said that she had experience of being a Prime Minister, something the UK's defence minister, Ben Wallace, lacks. She is also a woman, a plus for an organisation that has since 1957 had an unbroken succession of 16 male leaders. She is also seen as having some backing from the US, the alliance's leading member. 

The last two Nato secretary generals have come from the Nordic countries, with Stoltenberg preceded by Anders Fogh Rasmussen, who was prime minister of Denmark from 2001 to 2009 before taking the role. 

On the one hand, this reflects the appeal of a region whose countries are small enough not to have their own powerful agenda, and where the political culture is one of low-key competency. 

On the other, picking three Nordic leaders in a row might be a bit much, particularly for the newer Nato members from Central and Eastern Europe who are today very much in the spotlight following the invasion of Ukraine. 

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What do other leaders say about Frederiksen as a candidate? 

Norway's Prime Minister, Jonas Gahr Støre, heaped praise on Denmark's prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, when asked to assess her chances as Nato's next Secretary General on Tuesday, but refused to be drawn on whether she was in the running. 

"She is one of Europe's most talented prime ministers. One of those I know best and with whom I have the closest contact. I have only good things to say about her," he said, speaking at a joint press conference with outgoing Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. "But we will discuss who will lead Nato another time." 

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Who are the other candidates? 

Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia, is perhaps the lead candidate, alongside Ingrida Simonyté, Prime Minister of Lithuania, both of which would tick both the "first woman" and "first secretary general from Eastern Europe" boxes. 

Ursula Von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, has been seen as a candidate but, according to VG has ruled herself out.

Ben Wallace, the UK's Defence Secretary has said that the job would be "fantastic" if he were to get it, but he is seen as a long shot, despite the public support of UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.   

Other names that are being floated are the Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and the Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez. 

There is also a slim possibility that Stoltenberg can be persuaded to extend his tenure. 

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What does Mette Frederiksen herself say? 

When the story first came up in April, Frederiksen was adamant that she was not a candidate. 

"I have seen the Norwegian article and think that when we get closer to the positions being filled, there will be various rumours. But I am not a candidate. I can deny it. I am very, very happy to be prime minister of Denmark," she said. 

But is Nato Secretary General really a job anyone turns down?

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