The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Face-saving compromise may be on way for tight-fisted NATO allies

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LONDON, England - A face-saving compromise may be on the way for reluctant allies, including Canada, who are unwilling to boost defence spending to meet the NATO standard.

A spokesman for Prime Minister Stephen Harper says the final statement at the Wales Summit later this week will describe the long-standing expectation that members nations spend at least two per cent of their gross domestic product on defence as an "aspirational target."

That seems enough to satisfy the Harper government, which has balked at pressure from both the United States and Britain to substantially boost the military's budget slashed in the drive towards next year's balanced budget and anticipated election.

Jason MacDonald, the prime minister's director of communications, said late Tuesday that the government is willing to spend more "on measures that meet actual operational needs, in response to global issues."

He says Canada is not prepared to meet "an arbitrary target."

The language not only puts out an embarrassing political fire, given the prime minister's harsh condemnation of Russia, but it may also be enough to placate the Americans.

The U.S. has already said publicly that there's wiggle room in meeting the target as long as the contribution of allies is meaningful and that they purchase NATO interoperable equipment which can be used both for collective defence, and in a crisis.

MacDonald's statement did not commit to halting the anticipated $2.7-billion in cuts at National Defence next year.

The government currently forks out just over $18-billion per year on the military, down from over $21-billion at the height of the Afghan war.

Other allies have shown similar reluctance to increase spending. A few years ago, France's military budget accounted for 2.4 percent of its GDP, but that has dropped to 1.9 percent and the country's budget law mandates no increase before 2019.

Canada has never met the two per cent GDP target, even at the height of the Cold War.

Few NATO nations meet the goal and even some among the four that do, notably Greece, don't have equipment that can be used for collective defence of other nations.

Harper has been one of the vocal of western leaders in condemning Russia's annexation of Crimea and ongoing invasion of eastern Ukraine, which has claimed over 2,000 lives.

The statement that the government intends to fund "operational needs" is significant because it means the federal treasury could be called upon to pony up for individual deployments and commitments, rather than telling the defence department to find the money within its annual budget.

With the exception of the combat mission in Kandahar, the Conservatives have resisted doing special appropriations for deployments, the way most other countries do.

Documents obtained by The Canadian Press under access to information show that missions, such as the Afghan training deployment and the Libya bombing campaign, were funded out of the National Defence budget.

That was breaking a promise in the government's own Canada First Defence Strategy, which pledged overseas missions would be paid for through a special budgetary appropriation.

The defence department is currently being asked to swallow the cost of the Harper government's three-year commitment to fund newly trained and independent Afghan forces — something agreed to at a previous NATO summit.

There was no indication Tuesday whether the government would find the money elsewhere to cover that bill.

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