NATO leader: Egyptian unrest may hurt Europe

The unrest roiling countries such as Egypt and Tunisia could cause economic hardship in Europe and increase illegal immigration, NATO’s top official warned Monday.

Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen urged European governments that have sharply cut defense spending as they have trimmed their budgets to maintain their military capabilities.

The NATO leader said the unrest may harm local economies, spurring illegal migration to Europe.

Events in the Middle East and North Africa “serve as a timely reminder that we cannot take security for granted, even in our immediate neighborhood,” he said, urging European nations to keep their level of defense spending up.

The military alliance has so far refrained from commenting directly on the turmoil engulfing those two countries and other Western allies in the Middle East.

NATO cooperates closely with a group of friendly nations in the region, in a process known as the Mediterranean Dialogue. Besides Egypt and Tunisia, the group includes Algeria, Israel, Jordan Morocco and Mauritania. NATO also has a separate cooperation agreement with a number of Persian Gulf states.

“Therefore, it’s quite natural that we follow the situation in Egypt and other countries with great interest,” Fogh Rasmussen said.

“But I don’t consider the situation as a direct threat to NATO allies,” he said. The alliance has no intention of intervening in the crises, he said.

Fogh Rasmussen also warned that the instability could harm the Mideast peace process. He is scheduled to travel to Israel this week to address an annual conference on security and international issues.

Over the past two years, defense spending by NATO’s European members has shrunk by about $45 billion _ the equivalent of the entire annual defense budget of Germany, one of the alliance’s top-spending members.

As a result, the U.S. defense budget of nearly $700 billion accounts for nearly 75 percent of the total defense spending by NATO members. The combined military spending of all 26 European members is just above $220 billion.

“If we do not address these problems, we risk a divided and weaker Europe, increasingly adrift from the United States,” Fogh Rasmussen said.

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